49ers look to clinch NFC West vs. Rams

Sunday, December 4, 2011

SAN FRANCISCO -- Frank Gore never has reached the postseason. Same goes for Alex Smith and Patrick Willis. Vernon Davis, too.

Some of San Francisco's biggest stars are on the cusp of getting there at last. A win today against St. Louis -- or losses by Seattle and Arizona -- would wrap up the Niners' first NFC West crown and playoff berth since 2002.

Needless to say, this is one week when the word playoffs is not off limits as a talking point for coach Jim Harbaugh's focused bunch. And in this case, it doesn't go against Harbaugh's credo regarding looking too far ahead.

"Absolutely we're talking about it," Smith said. "For anyone who's only been here, obviously this is new territory for us. Something we've talked about every year and now all of a sudden to have it in our hands and the chance to clinch, it's great. No question, this is what you work so hard for. We've put ourselves in a good situation and now we just need to go out on Sunday and finish it."

Harbaugh is using it as motivation for the first-place Niners (9-2), who were eager to return to work after a 16-6 Thanksgiving night loss at Baltimore to Harbaugh's big brother, John.

"It's my seventh year here. To be in a position like this is great," Gore said.

Beating the Rams will lock up the spot San Francisco has known it will have for weeks. The 49ers are playing for postseason positioning, too. If they stay on task over the season's final month, San Francisco will secure a first-round bye.

"Whenever you have the opportunity to close something out, you've got to do it as soon as possible," said 49ers center Jonathan Goodwin, who won a ring with the Saints two years ago. "As long as there's still hope for other teams, they still have a chance. It's important to close things out right away. You never know what can happen in this league. As soon as you get the opportunity to finish something, you need to."

Gore could be headed for a double dose of celebration today. The two-time Pro Bowl running back has 7,323 yards rushing in his career and needs only 22 to pass the late hall of famer Joe Perry (7,344) for most in franchise history.

Harbaugh is all for his players gearing up for the Rams (2-9) by thinking about their next step: playoffs in January. Only long snapper Brian Jennings was part of the last 49ers postseason team in 2002.

"Sure, not just allow it but encourage it. How do you know where you're going to get to if you don't know what the goal is or where you stand?" Harbaugh said.

Before the season, St. Louis widely was considered a contender to win a division known as the NFC Worst last year, when Seattle won at 7-9.

The Seahawks were the first division winner with a losing record.

Quarterback Sam Bradford has taken his lumps. He has fumbled 10 times and lost a league-leading seven, five on sacks.

"I've never had a season like this before where things don't go your way so many weeks in a row," Bradford said. "But no matter what happens, especially with the quarterback position, you can't lose confidence. I still have all the confidence in the world in myself and my teammates. Every week when we install the game plan on Tuesday night and I'm with [offensive coordinator] Josh [McDaniels], I look at it and I'm like, 'Gosh we've got some good stuff and we're going to tear it up this week."'

St. Louis will have two shots at playing spoiler against San Francisco.

The teams play twice over the final five games, including in the season finale Jan. 1 at the Edward Jones Dome.

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