By now there's no mistaking it. It's no gimmick, and it's no fluke. This, instead, is the real deal, the truth behind the most startling resurgence in the league this year.

This is how the Niners win.

There are four easy steps. Step one: in the first half, score up to three field-goals, but no touchdowns. Step two: in the second half, score up to two touchdowns, with or without additional field-goals. Step three: play good defense throughout. Step four (for fans only): take plenty of anti-anxiety medication. (This author endorses Xanax.)

Five straight wins. All this way.

And none more important than the two last week. Having lost two of three, last week suddenly loomed like a reckoning. A tough opponent at home on Monday, and a Saturday trip to one of the league's toughest venues. Lose just one, and we'd lose almost everything: our well-earned place among the elites, our first-round bye, our legitimate shot at the Super Bowl. Lose just one, and we're just another pleasant story: a surprising start that eventually gave way to the predictable collapse. Thanks for playing; better luck next year.

But we won 'em both, the way we win. Against Pittsburgh, our first drive netted a first-and-goal at the two, putting us dangerously close to screwing up the formula. Fortunately, though, three plays netted minus-two, and we were able to limit our first-half offense to field goals for the sixth straight game. In the second half, we added the two permitted touchdowns--both, somewhat miraculously, in the red zone--and our D, aided mightily by the immobility of a certain quarterback, took it from there. The formula remained intact, and the fourth quarter was, for once, pretty much anxiety-free.

Seattle, though, brought us back to the basics. During an abysmal first-half, we didn't even sniff the end zone, and our lone field-goal was a 53-yarder. In the second half, we tied the game with another red-zone touchdown, and our D started to tighten the clamps. But though the formula would've allowed us to score a second touchdown to put it away, Jim Harbaugh flatly declined. On third-and-goal from the Seattle 13, he elected to run and then tack on a field goal. And after Seattle took the lead by breaking our record-streak of no-rushing-touchdowns-allowed--sadly, our punting team just gave it away--Harbaugh elected to run on third-and-six from the Seattle 24, settling for yet another three.

Despite the fact that kickers now routinely make field goals from damn near 60 yards away, Harbaugh settled for a two-point lead, casually demanding that our defense keep Seattle not only out of our end zone, but even out of our half of the field.

Someone pass the Xanax.

But once again, our D rewarded Harbaugh's faith, forcing a turnover as soon as Seattle crossed midfield. Even that wasn't quite enough, as our O couldn't muster a clinching first-down. But then our D snuffed out a last chance, and we'd earned another formula-win.

After each of these games, Harbaugh said something interesting. On Tuesday, after being put on the spot--perhaps unfairly--he said that he envisioned Alex Smith as our "long-term" starting quarterback. Now this, of course, might well be true, though discerning its meaning would require us to know how long he thinks a "long term" is. But it doesn't square, or doesn't square nicely, with what happened on those third downs in Seattle. With the season on the line in a very real sense, Harbaugh decided not to throw, choosing instead to put his D in an almost wildly dangerous state. (Which demonstrates, ironically, that "playing it safe" is anything but.) You might just say that he trusts his D, as of course by now he clearly should. But you must also concede: even after all these weeks, even after all these wins, Harbaugh doesn't fully trust Smith. (Though, in fairness, he likely trusts his receivers less; Braylon Edwards, we hardly knew ye.)

Naturally, Harbaugh can't say that. So he's forced to say what he said on Saturday: "we're always playing for touchdowns." I'm sure that's Harbaugh's usual philosophy, and this year we've seen it occasionally. When he fully trusts his quarterback, I think we'll see it constantly. But it doesn't square with those third downs at all. In other words, at least for now, it simply isn't true.

The issue, then, is whether we'll win the Super Bowl anyway.

That we truly can is a tribute to Harbaugh. Of course, the 2000 Ravens are the conventional example of a modern champion with a field-goal offense and a stellar defense. It's highly unusual, but it can be done. The Niners, though, are even more reliant on field goals, and our defense isn't quite as good. That here we sit at 12-and-3, clearly capable of beating anyone, merely confirms Harbaugh's singular brilliance.

But this doesn't mean that he's always right. Think again of that third-and-six, and let's put that same scenario at Lambeau next month. Let's say that Harbaugh bails out again, and gives the Packers that two-point deficit. Let's say that this time our defense falters, and the Packers hit on a last-second three. Let's say that we lose, knowing we'd squandered a chance to win.

Can you imagine anything worse?

No one can blame Harbaugh for having remaining doubts about Smith. Smith has had a very good year, much better than we had a right to expect; if what you want are touchdowns, though, Smith has yet to prove he's your man. Nevertheless, when we get to the playoffs, Harbaugh cannot let these chances go by: in actual fact, he always must be "playing for touchdowns." Of course, this wouldn't guarantee that we'd score those touchdowns; and even though we should take our shots, the field-goal brigade will likely continue.

It's almost unbelievable. In week one, David Akers kicked four field-goals against Seattle, and he just kept going. In week 16, with four more against Seattle, Akers set the NFL record for field goals in a season. For the Niners, a franchise that once deemed a field goal a sign of failure, the field goal has become our lifeblood. It's a risky formula. But in Harbaugh's hands, it's been, thus far, a winning one.

For better or worse, this is how the Niners win.

Let's just pray the wins don't stop.