Glenn Dickey: Niners are on their way

The most important aspect of the 49ers’ three-game win streak: They’ve learned how to finish a game. Near the end of each game, it seemed they might lose. But they did whatever it took, whether it was a defensive stop or a time-consuming offensive drive, to win the game.

Does that make the 49ers serious playoff contenders? Not yet. But they will be if they continue playing as they did in beating the Seattle Seahawks two days ago.

And who would have thought that we’d even be having this discussion this late in the season?

The 49ers have a significant advantage because they’re playing in the weakest division — a collective eight games under .500 — in the weaker conference. Even if they don’t win the division, a 9-7 record would probably be enough to qualify as a wild card in the NFC.

The key games for the Niners will be Sunday in St. Louis and Dec. 14 in Seattle. The Rams have not been playing well, but the 49ers have struggled mightily on the road with only one of their five wins coming away from home. The Seahawks will be much stronger for the rematch because quarterback Matt Hasselbeck will be back and running back Shaun Alexander will be back in top form.

An incredible defensive turnaround, from a team which was giving up an average of almost 34 points a game to one which has yielded only 30 points in three games, has come in great part because of the insertion of linebacker Brandon Moore and safety Keith Lewis into the starting lineup.

Moore, especially, has been a real force, whether rushing the passer or chasing down running backs or receivers. One of the defensive problems earlier was a lack of players with the speed to be playmakers, but Moore and rapidly improving rookie Manny Lawson give them two playmakers now.

But an equally important factor is that coach Mike Nolan has become his own defensive coordinator, taking control from Billy Davis, who has that title.

Nolan had been a defensive coordinator before becoming the 49ers’ coach and he tried to stay out of Davis’ way last year. In training camp, he said he didn’t even sit in on the defensive meetings because he didn’t want to undermine Davis’ authority. But that plan wasn’t working. With Nolan calling the shots on defense, the right players are in the lineup and the defensive game plans have become more imaginative.

Nolan doesn’t mess with the offense because coordinator Norv Turner is one of the best. Turner called his best game of the season Sunday, mixing in a double reverse and a rollout run for a touchdown by Alex Smith. Of course, it helped that running back Frank Gore had a career day with 212 yards, running behind Larry Allen and Jonas Jennings on the left side, with pulling guard Justin Smiley wiping out any defender who tried to fill the hole. The offense rolled up an incredible 256 yards in the first half.

Earlier, I wrote that this is a season when we should look for improvement and that 6-10 would be a good year. Now, it seems the Niners will exceed that mark easily. Whether or not they make the playoffs, they’re building a solid foundation for the future.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. E-mail him at glenndickey@hotmail.com.

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