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Niners sitting pretty despite winning ugly

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Dan Arkush

darkush@pfwmedia.com
Executive editor

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Posted Sept. 26, 2011 @ 8:39 p.m. ET
By Dan Arkush

The numbers totally lied in the Niners' unlikely Week Three victory.

Forget the fact that the offense managed only 226 total yards, workhorse RB Frank Gore had only 42 yards on 17 carries and a costly fumble, the offensive line allowed five sacks (11 in the last two games), and the team was flagged 12 times (including four false-starts), punted on its first six possessions and did not cross midfield until seven minutes remained in the third quarter.

The only number that really matters is that new head coach Jim Harbaugh won his first road game at the pro level, joining George Seifert (1989) and Monte Clark (1976) as the only coaches in franchise history to accomplish that feat.

In a game that looked like a Cincinnati skid waiting to happen, the Niners righted themselves in crunch time, coming from behind on a seven-yard TD run by rookie Kendall Hunter in place of Gore that produced a 13-8 victory and moved San Francisco atop the NFC West with a 2-1 record.

Imagine that.

While the defense and special teams deserve most of the credit, QB Alex Smith and the offense did just enough to turn the tables on the game-winning drive. Trailing 6-3 with nine minutes left, Smith directed a 10-play, 72-yard march toward paydirt. He connected on 4-of-5 passes for 48 yards, three of which went to TE Vernon Davis, before Hunter gave the Niners lead for good.

But the pass defense, which had been extremely vulnerable going into this game, was forced to seal the deal with a pair of clutch picks of rookie Bengals QB Andy Dalton by Carlos Rogers and Reggie Smith.

The PFW Spin

At the very least, the Niners are certainly interesting. Who would have thought, after all, that through three games Hunter would be more effective than Gore, and NaVorro Bowman (game-high 11 tackles) would be playing better at the linebacker position than Pro Bowler Patrick Willis?

Is it possible Hunter could push Gore, who was having a hard time even before he injured his right ankle Sunday, for a lot more playing time? A more important question at the moment is whether or not Gore will be able to play this Sunday at Philadelphia on an ankle that made it difficult to make cuts — which is far from a given.

Another position worth focusing on is right guard, where many close observers believe the time has come to replace Chilo Rachal, who was flat-out horrendous on Sunday, allowing a sack and getting penalized three times, with Adam Snyder. Rachal, who started, was rotating with Snyder at the end of the game.

At least Davis got his act together against the Bengals after wondering aloud about his usage the first two weeks. He caught eight passes for 114 yards, the most by a tight end so far this season. And former first-round WR Michael Crabtree looked like his bum foot finally might be healthy enough to enable him to start making a difference.

As for Alex Smith, he certainly has been worse. He just kept on grinding Sunday, cranking out 20-of-30 completions for 201 yards and, most importantly, zero turnovers. Through three games, he has thrown one interception, compared to five at this time a year ago.

But if the Niners are going to stay atop the NFC West, the odds are strong it mostly will be because of their defense and special teams. After allowing a field goal on the Bengals' opening drive, the defense was dominant, allowing only 1-of-10 third-down conversions and 79 rushing yards on 20 carries.

On special teams, both PK David Akers and P Andy Lee have been outstanding, although Lee delivered a rare 14-yard shank on Sunday.

Can the Niners keep the momentum going and pull off another road upset against the Eagles on Sunday? If Michael Vick is out of commission for Philly, the odds aren't that outlandish.

Yes, the Niners are winning ugly, very ugly in fact. But they're winning, and that's all that matters for the moment.

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