A Mile High salute to the 2006 San Francisco 49ers, who beyond all doubts went on the road to Denver, Colorado amidst the tremendous cold, ice and snow to derail the Broncos’ dreams of securing a playoff spot in the American Football Conference under the genius of Mike Shanahan.

I have enormous respect for the Denver Broncos from a coaching and talent spotlight in the fact that Mike Shanahan is one of my favorite coaches in the NFL today (outside of course of Mike Nolan). The Broncos have incorporated many of the West Coast philosophies that Shanahan brought over with him from his early days with the San Francisco 49ers and Bill Walsh. However on this cold and dark day, luck ran out for Shanahan and company when Mike Nolan’s new and improved San Francisco 49ers flew into town. The defense came up big in this game, as it has done in many of the games when our offense has been slow to get up, and centered on what they needed to do.

Three times the Denver Broncos drove down the field and stared into our end zone from five or less yards out. All three times the 49er defense delivered one crushing blow after another to deny them entry into it. All three times the Broncos were forced to rely on Jason Elam to kick a field goal to keep them competitive.

“Whenever you get in the red zone five times and you don’t score no touchdowns, that’s pathetic,” Denver rookie receiver Brandon Marshall said.

The goal-line stands really lifted my spirits as I watched this game and made me a true believer in Mike Nolan’s ability to mold a mediocre team (at best) into a determined and scrappy football team mentally inspired to fight for respectability. This is where true character is revealed among football players in Nolan’s book and mine as well. We came into this game with a new mindset to set the record straight once and for all, that we were not going to lie down and die just because our season had ended more than a week earlier.

“It was about starting off the 2007 season, starting the tone for next year,” said head coach Mike Nolan of the win that stunned Denver. “Character is revealed in adverse situations and difficult times and playing a game with not a whole lot at stake by some people’s standards and playing like we did today, I’m very pleased with performance. I think it says a lot about the direction we are going on and the guys we have on this team.”

The San Francisco 49er defense also was successful in forcing three turnovers on the Denver Broncos that severely crippled their chances of staying ahead or staging a successful comeback like they tried to do late in the game. No one can pre-judge free agent talent too often, but when you think about the Walt Harris acquisition from the Washington Redskins earlier you have to be thankful he fell into our hands at just the right moment. Harris intercepted two passes, returned one for a touchdown, and recovered a fumble that was never even thought to be one until replay showed it was. “Honest Harris,” as he has been acclaimed to be among the players and Mike Nolan, petitioned Nolan to throw the flag, as he knew that he had recovered the ball by picking it up. The challenge worked and the ball was awarded back to the San Francisco 49ers, which again helped us control time of possession with the football and to determine the outcome of this game in overtime.

“He’s just been a force this year,” defensive lineman Bryant Young said. “And tonight he came through with big plays all night.”

On third-and-17 in the third quarter Cutler, under heavy pressure from linebacker Brandon Moore, threw a pass that was suddenly picked off by Walt Harris and returned 28 yards for the fifth touchdown of his career. The 11-year veteran cornerback sent to the scrap heap by the Washington Redskins still has a lot to prove inside the NFL.

Walt Harris’ spectacular touchdown was the biggest play in the game. His interception followed a touchdown scamper by anonymous 49er player fullback Moran Norris who caught a short pass from Alex Smith and rumbled down the field for 32 total yards for a touchdown. Moran Norris, now very good friends with Frank Gore, has started to make a name for himself here in San Francisco. Just recently signed to an extension on his contract he is establishing himself as a devastating lead blocker for Frank who rings his praises for his hard fought yardage each and every Sunday.

I am confident that in time, Moran Norris can be a successful alternative near the red zone in adverse situations such as the one presented to the 49ers on this drive and many others. Alex Smith was under constant pressure and was blitzed time and time again and had to find an alternate route to answer that challenge. Finding Moran Norris with offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s blessing was a great move.

As the statistics don’t lie our secondary has been a disgrace more games than not within the confines of this season. A lot of the reasoning can be established with the facts that our pass rush has been glaringly weak due to the lack of talent we have rushing the quarterback. If we can look at anything from this season we now know that finding an elite pass rusher either through the draft or in free agency has to be a top priority.

Walt Harris has been the side of strength compared to Shawntae Spencer, who was recently signed to an extended contract, but still has more off days than good. My hope mirrors the rest of the 49er faithful out there that Shawntae will step-up his game as he works next to Harris on a gains more experience.

“Walt Harris has been an unbelievable pickup,” linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. “Even if he did nothing on the field, his presence in the locker room, his leadership skills, the way he takes every defensive back under his wing, that’s been huge. The way he’s played on the field has been an unbelievable contribution.”

Missing the Pro Bowl and being named just an alternate in case someone can’t make it angers me about the selection process. If any cornerback rightfully deserves to go, it is Walt Harris. He has come into this young franchise and has changed people’s lives and provided clear-cut direction to those that sorely need it.

“It’s very satisfying for me,” he said. “This win says a lot about this team’s character.”

The defense as a whole played well up and until the final Denver Bronco drive in the fourth quarter when Jay Cutler drove his team 80 total yards down to score a touchdown to tie the game at 23 with 1:30 remaining to force overtime.

On the offensive side of the ball the man that rang the bell again as he has done all season was Frank Gore. Gore rushed a career-high 31 times for 153 yards. He finished the 2006 season with 1,695 yards rushing for the season, which far surpassed the 49ers previous record for a season with 1,570 yards set by then Garrison Hearst back in 1998. Frank Gore’s total was the very highest in the National Football Conference; the very first time a 49er has ever led the conference in rushing. His 2,180 yards combined yards set yet another team record on the season. When you look at all the yards he obtained and all the touchdowns he accomplished through the offensive line, who loved making those lanes for him because of his positive motivational thinking, Frank Gore was the 49ers offense this season.

Frank Gore who has an apartment in Santa Clara can be seen arriving early and leaving late from the training complex before and after studying game film, or after another grueling workout. The former Florida Coral Gables High football star, which then went to the University of Miami, has established himself as a broken player with attached durability issues because of two knee reconstructive surgeries to becoming primetime for the 49ers.

He may be the best running back the San Francisco 49ers has ever employed. He never even started out in the beginning of this season as the starter with Kevan Barlow just ahead of him. Now for the first time Frank Gore has shattered all of the 49ers rushing records and is going to the Pro Bowl for the very first time.

“When I think of Frank, I think of a guy who has a lot of heart and passion to play this game and be a team player,” 49ers coach Mike Nolan said.

Frank Gore played a huge part in this final victory against the Denver Broncos in the third quarter with a 12-play, 76-yard drive that was finished off with a 32-yard screen pass to fullback Moran Norris. Alex Smith had been sacked five times during this game for a total loss of 26 yards. He was under constant pressure to find alternate means of completing some short passes and Moran Norris became that reasonable alternative. I cannot stress enough that right offensive tackle Kwame Harris continues to be the weak link on this offensive line as time and time again you witnessed him in the backfield watching Alex go down because of his inability to sustain blocks on bull-rushing defensive linemen.

“It was very big,” said Alex Smith who was sacked five times. “If you are going to play a team that brings pressure like that, the only way to get out of it is to burn them like we did on that one.”

Frank Gore had a long run of 24 total yards towards the end of the first half that helped result in the 49ers getting into Bronco territory and kicking a field goal to get on the board at halftime to make it 13-3 Denver. He also had two receptions for 32 total yards and had a rushing average of 4.9 yards per carry. The 23-year old Gore has accomplished so much in such little time as an elite running back in the NFL. He has memorized the masses among his teammates and all 49er fans in my opinion. Because here is a guy that just plays with a whole lot of heart and pride to be number one and is always selfless to his offensive line.

If there is any resemblance of this look at the year in 2005 when Kevan Barlow called-out his offensive line as being the responsible party for his low rushing average and inability to break plays. In fact he called for a draft to replace all of them at one point, where on the other side of the coin you have a Frank Gore bending over backwards in praise and recognition for his offensive line.

Alex Smith made that clear by buying his offensive linemen 42-inch plasma television sets for Christmas to recognize them for their commitment in helping him be successful. I thought that was a genuine reinforcement of what I have been saying for years that the offensive line will make or break a team’s season in more ways than none.

However I do believe that Kwame Harris should take his television back and get a full refund back and hand it to Alex with an apology for not playing up to his fullest potential. It is a shame to always be bashing on this one individual but he sets a bad example on the field when you see the line always breaks at the seams in his vicinity.

Alex Smith went 17-of-32 for 194 yards with one touchdown and one interception off Frank Gore’s fingertips that should’ve been caught. If not for the running expertise of Frank Gore and the defense holding the line every time they took the field I still don’t believe we could’ve won this game just with Alex Smith.

It was a great collective effort. Alex Smith did make some amazing passing plays happen with Arnaz Battle getting four receptions for 56 total yards and Bryan Gilmore securing a critical 14-yard reception on third down that helped secure the field goal by Joe Nedney that ended the game in overtime.

What was a heck of an effort by kicker Joe Nedney to come through in this game with the 36-yard field goal that sealed the deal with the victory 26-23 49ers and was witness to the many thousands of screaming Denver Bronco fans that became utterly exasperated after the kick was made.

We stand at (7-9) on the 2006 NFL season with a lot of promise ahead of us. It is a grateful time for all 49er fans to go home with a final victory to remember in knocking the Denver Broncos out of the playoffs as the Arizona Cardinals did to us a short time ago.

We stand at a crossroads of sorts with Mike Nolan’s administration and it will be up to him to help make those tough decisions in the off-season that will help define this franchise for a playoff run in 2007. Anything else following this ending is out of the question as the bar has been raised with that expectation.

For now all we can do is be thankful for a successful season full of improvements. I am now wishing the Philadelphia Eagles success in our conference because of the reference to quarterback Jeff Garcia whom I admire and respect so dearly. His rise to fame and glory all over again by taking over the helm of this franchise predicated on the West Coast Offense is exciting.

I wish him the best in the 2006 NFL playoffs and miss him a lot because I felt he was dealt a raw hand here back in San Francisco under the Terry Donahue and Dennis Erickson era. Believe it or not as the saying goes and it is his own admission: “I left my heart back in San Francisco.”

For now may all our hopes and dreams materialize with Alex Smith and his continued progress towards being successful, because he has already broken a 49er record on his own by taking every offensive snap this season as a 49er. If we can tweak the offensive line on the right side and get Jonas Jennings healthy for a long period of time ever again, he’ll prosper like never before.