Don’t underestimate how much the 49ers have grown up over the last month or so.
With the NFC West champions set to finish off a terrific regular season this morning in St. Louis by playing for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs — and a week off — the Niners have stamped themselves ready for whatever the postseason tournament can throw at them.
The team’s evolution has kicked into high gear since their first taste of the postseason’s exacting demands for execution on Thanksgiving night. In losing to the Baltimore Ravens, who play their best football at home, the 49ers struggled throughout, but held together long enough to have a chance in the fourth quarter, only to come up short.
Three weeks later, this time on their home turf, they beat up a Pittsburgh Steelers team playing with its quarterback hobbling. The victory not only promoted the Niners as playoff-worthy to a “Monday Night Football” audience, their second-half performance signaled a big step forward.
Last week, in Seattle, this team posted what I consider their most impressive victory of the season — on the road, against a Seattle Seahawks team that for a month had been playing as well as any team in the league.
The Niners not only overcame the dagger of a fourth quarter blocked punt, but they did so thanks to the high point of Alex Smith’s season.
Smith capped off a clutch second half with a completion to Michael Crabtree for a 41-yard gain that led to the eventual game-winning field goal. The completion was as big-time a throw as Smith has ever made, perfectly placing the ball between two defenders along the left sideline.
Coach Jim Harbaugh recognizes his team’s growth the last two weeks, calling the games against Pittsburgh and Seattle “previews to what the playoffs would be like. That pressure to perform. Both teams with a lot at stake. That’s what the playoffs would be like.”
Even better, Harbaugh sees these 49ers compiling “a lot of little reasons that a lot of people think are the minutia that aren’t important that add up to make all the difference.”
“Our guys continually do the little things,” Harbaugh said. “And they stack on each other and they build on each other. And lo and behold, you win games in high-pressure situations, or find ways to do enough things right to win games and get better. And those things lead to wins. Those things, enough of those things, lead to championships.”
A month ago, reaching the playoffs was an accomplishment. Now, the Niners have stamped themselves worthy of an ultimate goal far beyond that. And that’s some big-time growing up.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.