It’s a whole different ballgame.
From here, the 49ers must prove they can play with expectations tapping them on their shoulders.
The scene in Santa Clara has shifted 180 degrees. Seven weeks ago, the Cleveland Browns were supposed to be the up-and-coming franchise, and a big challenge for the 49ers. Now, the 49ers are considered shoo-ins to win this afternoon.
Surprises courtesy of Jim Harbaugh and Co. are no longer possible. These 49ers aren’t sneaking up on anybody any more. Yet they’re going to have to summon the same spirit that has carried them to a 5-1 record and a three-game lead in the NFC West.
“The thing we’re just stressing is to keep climbing, we don’t want to hang on like a mountain climber, like a rock climber,” Harbaugh said earlier this week. “It takes more energy to hang out than it does to climb, so we’ll just keep climbing.”
They’re big favorites today, expected to win easily. Time to summon up an entirely new way to motivate themselves.
Nobody’s disrespecting them. They’re ranked in the top five of just about everybody’s power rankings.
Nobody is leaving them out of any postseason discussions. Heck, with the Seahawks, Rams and Cardinals chasing them, they may be the first team to qualify for the playoffs.
A team fighting for its life feeds off a whole different adrenalin rush than one defending its pedestal. The 49ers have to fight with the same intensity, if not more, from here on out.
“We’re not changing, we’re striving to improve,” Harbaugh said. “Haven’t got off of that course and left that track or that way of thinking from the beginning.”
Don’t make light of the challenge ahead. Harbaugh and his staff have a new message to get across: convincing this team that it still has to work its collective tail off. That it hasn’t proven anything yet.
What the 49ers are in the process of proving is that they have a terrific defense. They’ve allowed the second-fewest points per game and the second-fewest yards rushing per game.
“Good teaching, good learning, playing together,” Harbaugh said. “That’s probably the biggest thing is just how well our defense plays together and unselfishly. ... All I can explain it is, they’re playing very well together and very unselfishly, very team oriented as a group.
While attention has gravitated to Alex Smith’s improvement or Harbaugh’s intensity the first six weeks of the season, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio could be the 49ers’ Most Valuable Player/Coach so far.
“I think he’s one of the all-time best defensive coordinators in the history of the league,” Harbaugh said when asked about Fangio. “I think that’s who he is; I think that’s what his legacy will be some day.”
This team’s legacy, however, has yet to be determined.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The Examiner. Email him at email@example.com.