Niners looking like solid No. 2 seed in NFC

Posted Dec. 05, 2011 @ 7:25 p.m.
Posted By Dan Arkush

The Niners are back on top of the world.

Making amends Sunday for their Thanksgiving night shellacking by the Ravens, Jim Harbaugh's troops stomped all over the hopeless Rams in a 26-0 rout at home that moved the Niners' record to 10-2 and enabled them to clinch their first NFC West title in nine years. The Niners became the team to most quickly clinch its division since the Colts clinched the AFC South in Week 12 in 2009 and the Saints clinched the NFC South in Week 13 that same year.

The league's top-ranked defense in points allowed took center stage, limiting the Rams to a mere 157 total yards and not a single first down rushing despite losing star ILB Patrick Willis with a right hamstring injury suffered while attempting to tackle Rams FB Brit Miller in the first quarter. The Niners' offense wasn't nearly as intimidating, continuing its penchant for field goals instead of touchdowns inside the red zone. But the attack showed some big-play life as the game wore on, with QB Alex Smith registering a career-high 142.3 passer rating and connecting on a pair of 50-yard-plus scores to WRs Michael Crabtree and Kyle Williams in the second half.

The PFW spin

The red flags that made an appearance in Baltimore have stopped waving for the time being, as the Niners appear to be sitting pretty with a likely No. 2 seed coming their way a month from now. But the next three games — at Arizona, home vs. Pittsburgh and at Seattle — figure to be a great deal more challenging than their game against a Rams team that has been stung as severely by the injury bug this season as any team in the league.

Both the Cardinals and Seahawks are playing a lot better all of a sudden and will be benefiting from home-field advantages against the Niners. The Pittsburgh game, meanwhile, should serve as a very telling playoff barometer, as the Steelers arguably shape up as one of the AFC's more dangerous teams at the moment, along with the Ravens and Patriots.

In addition to the team's continued inability to consistently convert third downs, the offensive line, which surrendered four sacks Sunday after yielding an ungodly nine to the Ravens in the previous game, clearly needs to improve its protection of Smith. But in spite of his O-line's vulnerability, Smith couldn't seem any more comfortable than he is at this stage of an impressive campaign that could result in more than a few Most Improved Player of the Year votes.

"Yeah, (I'm) loving where we're at right now," Smith said after the Rams game Sunday. "Like I said, though, there's so much football ahead of us. When it's all done, I'll be able to reflect on it a little bit. Right now, just loving the guys in the locker room, having a great time right now."

One player who is greatly responsible for that great time is Williams, whose electric big-play ability could be a lot more on display in the coming weeks. In addition to scampering unimpeded past the Rams' secondary on a 56-yard TD catch, the lightning-quick Williams' 25-yard reverse set up one of David Akers' four field goals on four attempts.

Harbaugh didn't seem to think that Willis, who in recent weeks had been playing as well as he ever had, was hurt seriously on Sunday. But it would appear that local product Larry Grant, who replaced Willis on Sunday, is more than up to the task of filling in for the short term after registering a sack and six tackles, including one particularly punishing stop on Rams workhorse RB Steven Jackson.   

"We know that if anyone goes down, the next guy has to step up," said Niners ILB NaVorro Bowman, who continues to play like a Pro Bowler in the making. "It (Willis' injury) was a shocker, but [LB] Larry [Grant], he's been working so hard in practice. He did a great job in stepping up. My hat goes off to him."