The 49ers keep creating milestones. First, it was coming off a 20-point deficit to beat the Eagles in Philadelphia.
Then it was the 45-point slamming of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Candlestick. Finally, it was the 25-19 win over the previously undefeated Lions in Detroit on Sunday.
Each win has been met by skepticism from a portion of the 49ers’ fan base. The win in Philadelphia? The Eagles were not really very good. The landslide at Candlestick? The Bucs were overrated. Sunday’s win on the road against a previously undefeated team will be a real challenge for the skeptics.
The 49ers have now won four in a row, three of those wins on the road. Tampa Bay, scorned last week by 49ers skeptics, rebounded with a win over New Orleans and is tied for the NFC South lead with the Saints. Even the struggling Eagles won. In fact, the collective record for the four teams the 49ers have beaten, with the 49ers losses subtracted, is 15-5. Only the Eagles are below .500. Wins over these teams have all been significant milestones.
I thought it would take Jim Harbaugh longer to get the team going in the right direction. But the team started to come together against the Eagles, and the confidence level has grown each week.
The 49ers always had a good chance of making the playoffs because the NFC West is so weak, but they won’t need that crutch. Only undefeated Green Bay, the reigning Super Bowl champion, is better than the 49ers’ 5-1 record.
It starts with the coaches. Vic Fangio put together a brilliant defensive game plan to stymie the big-play Detroit offense; Calvin Johnson caught seven passes, but he was never a real factor, as Fangio consistently mixed up coverages to confuse quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Offensively, Harbaugh and Greg Roman emphasized a power running game, through big holes in the middle.
Interestingly, when I was a guest on KPIX’s “49ers Preview” last week, analyst Tim Ryan said that was exactly what the Niners should do because the 49ers’ offensive line could open up holes against a Detroit front concentrating on the pass rush.
Battling the crowd noise and that ferocious pass rush, Alex Smith had his worst game of the season, throwing his second interception of the season and losing a fumble on the first play of the game. But Smith also hit his most important pass of the day, a 6-yard touchdown throw to Delanie Walker on fourth-and-goal with just 1:51 left. That gave the 49ers a 22-19 lead, with David Akers’ field goal pushing it to the 25-19 final.
That has been typical of the 49ers during their winning streak: They’ve learned how to make the big plays at the end. Justin Smith saved the win over the Eagles by knocking the ball loose from a receiver. Alex Smith threw the winning touchdown pass in this one.
They’ve also learned how to win on the road. Philadelphia fans are known as some of the most ferocious anywhere. Detroit’s Ford Field is the noisiest stadium in the league. But the Niners won in both places.
The 49ers have learned to believe in themselves. Now, it’s the fans’ turn.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.