Linebacker NaVorro Bowman (No. 53) has been a key piece of the 49ers defense. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
It’s less than halfway through the regular season, and some NFL observers are saying the 6-1 49ers already have won the NFC West.
San Francisco has a four-game lead in the woeful division where the combined record of the other three teams is 4-17. The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch noted that San Francisco could clinch the division title as soon as Nov. 20, with six games and 42 days left in the regular season, if the 49ers hold to form. In addition, ESPN reported that since divisional realignment in 2002, no team has blown a four-game lead after Week 8.
But, as 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman and his teammates started work Monday for their Sunday game in Washington against the Redskins, he said the Niners have to keep playing hard and concentrate on the next game.
“You don’t want to get complacent,” he told reporters, adding, “We just want to keep playing our game.”
If the 49ers keep playing their game on defense, they are likely to keep piling up the victories.
San Francisco is the No. 1 defense in the NFL in points allowed per game (15.3) and in rushing yards allowed (just 73.4 yards per game).
As Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group reported Monday, the 49ers have held their past three opponents, and five of their past seven, to fewer than 20 points.
Also, the 49ers have not allowed an opposing running back to rush for 100 yards or more in 29 consecutive games, the league’s longest active streak and fifth-longest since 2000 (the Ravens have the longest streak over that span, 39 games from 2006-09).
With active, athletic players such as linebackers Bowman, Patrick Willis and rookie Aldon Smith (who has a team-leading 6 ½ sacks) and a strong front seven – including veteran defensive end Justin Smith -- the 49ers’ defense has become the foundation of this season’s turnaround under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
Over a full season, offense may come and go, but a team built around its defense can play consistently well over long stretches.
Monday, Harbaugh said the 49ers’ ability to shut down other teams’ running games is “huge” and “our guys take great pride in it.”
That frees up the secondary, he says, by “not always having to commit an eighth defender or an eighth hat into the box, when you can stop the run with those seven.”
While Harbaugh was happy to talk about his team’s defense, he was more reticent about talking about the 49ers’ big NFC West lead and when it could clinch an NFC West title and a playoff spot.
“Making this Sunday as good as it can possibly be,” he told reporters Monday, when asked what his focus is. Added Harbaugh: “We’ll get to December and see how many wins we have, see how many we need as it relates to the season.”