Niners prove NFC West race is far from decided 

click to enlarge Frank Gore
  • Ed Szczepanski/USA Today Sports
  • The 49ers have been able to re-establish Frank Gore and the running game in the past couple of games and clearly aren't going anywhere in the race for the NFC West title.
As a Canadian transplant to the Bay Area, I receive a lot of calls from out-of-town friends looking to come down to catch a major sporting event. With so much going on, choosing the right week for a vacation in The City can be challenging.

Do I want to see the America’s Cup? A Giants-Dodgers series? Should I check out Stephen Curry and the Warriors?

Over the summer, a good friend decided to aim for the third week in January, enticed by the prospect of an NFC title bout in the final game at Candlestick Park.

Lofty aspirations, but certainly within the realm of possibility.

But after the 49ers fell to the Indianapolis Colts in Week 3, he sent the following message via email: “Can you scout out a good 4-5 day period for me to come there in early 2014? I already ID’d that ... NFC championship week, but niners looking rough to host.”

He wasn’t the only person writing off the 49ers after three weeks. With the upset loss to the Colts, the departure of linebacker Aldon Smith and a short week to prepare for a road game against the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers suddenly looked like underdogs in the NFC West.

But Week 5 provided a good reminder of how fast the picture can change in the NFL. With a 34-3 win over the Houston Texans on Sunday night and a Seattle Seahawks loss in Indianapolis, the 49ers picked up a game on their division rivals, putting them within striking distance of first place.

While the 49ers are facing adversity for the first time under Jim Harbaugh, the Seahawks also proved to be fallible this week, especially when they leave the raucous atmosphere of CenturyLink Field in Seattle.

Seattle is two plays away from being 0-3 on the road right now and without getting into the shoulda-woulda-coulda, it’s reasonable to envision another road loss or two before the end of the season without any more freebies from Matt Schaub.

Enough about the Seahawks, though, the 49ers need to worry about doing what they do best: running the ball, stopping the run and limiting the mistakes.

It would be a stretch to write a headline declaring that the bullies are back, but the 49ers are starting to regain their identity as the most physical team on both sides of the line.

They followed up their bruising performance in St. Louis by gaining 4.9 yards per carry against the top-ranked Texans defense and they held Arian Foster and Ben Tate to 3.4 yards per carry until the game got out of hand in the second half.

Most importantly, though, Smith, Patrick Willis and Mario Manningham will be returning to the field at some point, possibly this month, the equivalent of getting a rook, a bishop and knight back on the board in a game of chess.

If Michael Crabtree manages to suit up in December, which appears likely at this point, the showdown with the Seahawks on Dec. 8 could end up determining home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs after all, though the 5-0 New Orleans Saints may have a thing or two to say about that.

So, if you have any friends looking to make a trip to town this winter, that’s the date they should circle on their calendars.

Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at pgackle@sfexaminer.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.

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Paul Gackle

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