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At halftime, I sat there, all ready to write it again. As usual, I was bipolar, torn between love for our heroic D and utter contempt for our pathetic O. The defense had made the Rams look every bit as awful as they are, but the Rams' offense was looking no worse than our own. 84 yards. Zero points. Were it not for the fortunate bounce of a punt, we'd have been locked in a scoreless tie, with an opponent that was one of the absolute worst.
Even at the end of the game, I was tempted. Sure, we'd buried the Rams under an avalanche of our defensive pressure and their own incompetence. But from an offensive standpoint, we'd just completed the least impressive 35-point win in the history of the league. The playcalling, at least, was a notch above prehistoric, but thanks largely to an offensive line that's quickly approaching the limits of our tolerance, we'd been able to muster only 228 net yards. We'd attained dismal averages of 5.5 per pass and 3.3 per rush. And Shaun Hill had endured another four sacks (only Buffalo's Trent Edwards has suffered more), and he'd been battered on seven occasions besides.
Yup, I was all set to write yet another installment in my continuing series: the wins are nice, but this offense just won't get us over the hump.
Then I noticed something. And I really thought about it. And then I felt like writing something else.
So tell you what. Much to your relief I'm sure, I'm gonna take a week off from my usual anxiety. I won't regurgitate my standard concerns. I won't bellyache about how bleak things might be if we were placed in some other division. We're in this one, and it's worth declaring, loud and proud.
It's been seven long years, but we're back where we belong. Best in the West.
Check out the standings. There we are, alone on top. Three-and-one, and all three wins at the expense of the guys behind us. No other team is even .500, but it's even better than that. The Rams now are oh-and-four and utterly hopeless. The Seahawks are one-and-three and patched together with wire and tape. The Cardinals at one-and-two aren't quite so dead, but both those losses were at home, and the Cards seem particularly ill-suited to break the famous curse of the Super Bowl loser.
As recently as last week, I was still thinking the playoffs were a long shot. Now I realize that anything less than the division title would be a monumental disappointment. Forget about the ifs and buts. We are far and away the best team in this bunch, and that's a major achievement we should recognize with unmitigated joy.
The crumminess of this division should be celebrated, not begrudged. After all, in our glory years, that crumminess was one of our most underrated boons. Remember when the NFC "West" contained the Rams, Falcons, and Saints, all of whom stunk to high heaven? In the 14 years of our Super Bowl dynasty, the Rams were .500 or worse 8 times, the Saints 9 times, and the Falcons an astounding 12 times. Our own teams were pretty good, of course, but let's face it. Winning at least 10 games every one of those years—except the year in which fewer than 10 games were played—was a whole lot easier when we played 6 a year with the dregs of the league.
We didn't apologize for it then. And we shouldn't apologize for it now.
Am I changing my tune enough to suggest we're about to contend for the Super Bowl? Uh, no. As I noted, in a league that's increasingly defined by its mediocrity, the Niners are glaringly imperfect. There's plenty of room for the critics to gripe, and as soon as next week I myself might be griping again.
Right now, though, we're at the quarter turn. It's still early, and anything can happen. But it's not too early to say that a division title is ours to lose. We are on pace to return to the playoffs. If things stay on course, we'll see playoff football at Candlestick Park.
Go ahead and point out our flaws, if you must. After what I've written lately, who am I to stop you? But take just a minute and appreciate where we are.
We're the class of our division. And we haven't been that in a very long time.
It's so, so easy for us to be greedy. We're so accustomed to championship football. Not just that, but beautiful football. We've come to see it as our birthright, and that's why to many of us, even after six straight years of losing, wins just aren't enough. Wins are better than losses, of course, but until we go farther, until we restore that beautiful, championship level, plenty of us will rake plenty of muck.
Needless to say, myself included.
But after a seven-year climb, we're atop this division, and it's time to enjoy the view. It's time to take just a minute and appreciate how far we've come, without worrying whether we'll get any farther.
So let's make a deal, just for this week. This week, when you're tempted to criticize Scot McCloughan for his second-round selections of David Baas and Chilo Rachal, just remember Terry Donahue and his reign of terror. This week, when you're itching to rail against Mike Singletary's conservative philosophy, think back to Dennis Erickson and his glassy-eyed impotence. This week, when you're dreading more of Hill's wobbly ducks (which somehow end up always where they should be), pay your respects to Ken Dorsey and his record of two-and-eight. And this week, when you're starting to worry that maybe this team won't do anything more than just get to the playoffs—as if that's such a bad thing—just remember the Niners of 2004, two overtime field-goals from oh-and-16.
It's a weak division. And we haven't officially won it. But after only four games, the title—and the playoffs—are in our grasp. So far from where we've been, no matter how far we might go.
Just don't forget to remember that.