Last Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park, the 49ers hit the field looking for their fifth straight victory, and they got it. Was it pretty? Not really. Was it fun to watch? Not always. Does any of that matter right now? No way. Not by a long shot. But we'll get to that later.

Of course, you wouldn't know the 49ers are among the league's best based on the conversation among my carpool after the game. As me and my merry band of beer swilling amigos made our way home from the ‘Stick on Sunday evening, this much was painfully evident:

Jeff: "Dude, I'm still not sold on these guys…they barely beat the Browns."

Nate: "Our defense is awesome, but Alex Smith sucks…why can't he hit his deep reads?"

Carl: "I miss the 80's…but I can't complain…they're winning."

BJ: "F*ck you guys. My Seahawks are starting Charlie Whitehurst. Charlie f*cking Whitehurst. Go Beavers. Wait…Stanford's up next. Sh*t."

AJ: "You guys realize that we are 6-1, right? What's not to like?"

All: "Plenty. That second half was sloppy as hell."

Winning does some funny things to fans…especially when those fans are used to having plenty to complain about. But the fact is, no matter how ugly the second half of Sunday's game was (for the offense, anyway), this is a game that the 49ers might have let get away from them last season. The fact that they won is a testament to how far they've come under the guidance of Coach Harbaugh and his staff. Sunday was a perfect snapshot of what the 49ers have become: a team good enough to overcome its own mistakes. What follows is a look at where the 49ers started, where they are, and where they're headed.

Where They Were
At the beginning of the season, if you'd have told me that the 49ers would be 5-1 coming out of their bye week, I'd have asked for a shot of whatever you'd been drinking. Last season, the 49ers were schematically the worst team in football, hands down. The fact that they managed to win 6 games last season is a testament to how talented the roster was…but with a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator, a new defensive coordinator and a new special teams coordinator coupled with new starters at outside linebacker, nose tackle, cornerback, strong safety, strong inside linebacker, left defensive end and center, how many more games could they possibly be expected to win in 2011?

My answer: three. At the beginning of the season, I figured that competent coaching plus a few lucky bounces would get the 49ers to 9-7 and that would get them to the playoffs, where they would lose in the first round.

After all, the 49ers were hardly among the NFL's elite teams when the season started. They had promise…but that was about it. It's not like they were going to shock the NFL, right?

Where They Are
Fast forward to Week 9 of the 2011 season…a funny thing happened on the way to 9-7(insert laugh track here). The 49ers started winning, and they just kept winning. West coast. East coast. Great teams. Rotten teams. Great runners, great passers, great defenses and great coaches…it just hasn't mattered. Somehow, some way, the 49ers have managed to win 6 of their first 7 games, and they currently have the second best record in the NFL.

How did we get here? That's the funny part. The 49ers are where they are for more than a few reasons but the most prevalent are as follows:

Coach Harbaugh: Jim Harbaugh has been nothing short of brilliant over the season's first seven games. From his use of personnel (a pass to a nose tackle AND the left tackle?) to his use of scheme, he has defied convention. In a pass first league, he's put together the most innovative running attack the league has seen in years. In a league dominated by "me-first" superstars, he's managed to get his players to buy in to a blue collar, working man philosophy, and it has worked. Given what he's accomplished this far, it appears that the sky is the limit for the 49ers' new head coach.

Defense, Defense, Defense: Vic Fangio and his cadre of defenders have literally taken the league by storm this season (Stormtroopers? Hm. It's a great fit with "Lord" Fangio's nickname and I'm a HUGE Star Wars nerd, so indulge me). The 49ers are NFL's #1 ranked scoring defense. They are stuffing the run at an historic pace, allowing a mere 3.5 yards per carry, and have allowed no rushing touchdowns. They've generated 21 sacks (tied for 7th in the NFL), just 5 off the league high of 26. They've defensed 52 passes (1st in the NFL), forced 10 fumbles (tied for 2nd in the NFL) and have 9 interceptions (tied for 7th in the NFL). Any way you slice it, this defense has been special thus far…and they have a chance to be REALLY special if they end the season the way they've started it.

Frank the Tank: Frank Gore is not the fastest back in the NFL. He's not the biggest or the strongest, either. But he may have the best combination of vision and explosiveness in the league right now. Thus far, he's averaged 96.7 yards per game (4th in the NFL), rushed for 5 scores (tied for 7th in the NFL), and rushed for 28 first downs (tied for 5th in the NFL). Before this season is over, he'll be the 49ers' all time leading rusher…but before his career is over, he could be much more than that.

Extra Special Teams: Special Teams coach Brad Seely has made a real difference in San Francisco this season, and it shows up big time on game day. Two years ago, the 49ers had what was arguably the worst coverage and return units in the NFL. As of week 9, they rank among the best in the league. Ted Ginn is averaging 29.8 yards per kickoff return (4th in the NFL) and 13.2 yards per punt return (4th in the NFL). Among qualifying players, only Ginn and Chicago's Devin Hester have returned a punt and a kickoff for a TD this season. Improved return and coverage units have made a measurable difference in the 49ers' success this season: thus far, their average starting position on offense is their own 31 (2nd in the NFL) and their average starting position on defense is their opponents' 25 (5th in the NFL).

"We Don't Suck": Prior to the 49ers' game against the Eagles, Joe Staley (the unofficial spokesman for the offensive line) boldly proclaimed, "We don't suck". Guess what? He was right. Boy, oh boy, was he right. Over their past three games, the 49ers have surrendered only two sacks. Frank Gore has erupted, rushing for 125+ yards and a TD in each of the last 4 games. The complicated blocking scheme implemented by the 49ers this season took some time to sink in…but week over week, the offensive line has gotten better and they have had a HUGE part to play in the 49ers' recent resurgence.

Alex Smith: You knew this was coming, right? Somewhere deep down, you knew that I'd bring up 49ers' resident lightning rod. Love him or hate him…you've got to acknowledge that he has played a big part in the 49ers 2011 turnaround. Whether you think he's being managed, a game manager, or that he's finally turned the corner, the fact is that he is dealing when he has to (his TD pass to Delanie Walker in Detroit was as clutch as they come) and taking care of the football (only 2 interceptions in 7 games). Has Smith been prolific? No. But he has been a huge part of every game the 49ers have won this season, including two 4th quarter comebacks on the road. Has he become Alex the Great? No…but at the very least, he's become Alex the Good…and for now, that's exactly what the 49ers need him to be.

Where They're Headed
The 49ers have started the season hotter than anyone could have imagined…but where are they headed? Many teams have started the season hot only to fall apart down the stretch. Will the 49ers be any different? The way I see it, there are three games in the remaining nine that will go a long way toward defining the 2011 season for the 49ers:

Week 10 vs. Giants: The Giants have a Super Bowl winning QB, a dominating rushing attack, and a monstrous pass rush. If the 49ers can manage a win against these guys, even their staunchest doubters will have to acknowledge that they're for real.

Week 12 vs. Ravens: In what will no doubt be billed as the "Har-Bowl", the 49ers will be faced with their mirror image: a team with a great running back and a dominating defense. This one is on the road, and given the 49ers struggles on the East Coast prior to this season, I thought for sure this would be an ugly loss. But at this point; it looks like it could be anyone's ball game.

Week 15 vs. Steelers: In recent seasons, the only time anyone has mentioned the 49ers and the Super Bowl in the same breath, it has been in reference to their glory years…but if they can mange a win against these guys that will change. Big time. Managing a victory over the reigning AFC Champions, they will have officially arrived.

Barring a meltdown of epic proportions, the 49ers are going to the playoffs this season…so I could just say that they're headed to the playoffs, and end things there. But I won't. Rather, I'll end on this note: Last season, the 49ers were a team that couldn't overcome their own foibles. This season, they've grown into a contender…a team good enough recover from its own mistakes. And if they finish the way they've started, they have the potential to become more. A whole lot more.