Jeff Fisher and his St. Louis Rams consider San Francisco the blueprint for what so many NFL teams would love to be.
From a multi-faceted, creative offense and dominant, shut-down defense to spot on special teams, and a coach who motivates in his own unique way to make a group go, the 49ers sure look to be rolling right toward another special January playoff run.
Hold all the praise, please. Jim Harbaugh doesn't want to hear any of it — and nobody on his team much cares to, either. It's still only early November, after all, and Harbaugh has said it's not until well into December he truly takes stock of his team's chances.
"We'd rather probably just try to kick them in the shins when people are saying things like that," Harbaugh said.
His NFC West-leading Niners (6-2) will get that very chance Sunday at Candlestick Park against the Rams (3-5). Both teams are returning from bye weeks, but with San Francisco striving to maintain momentum from a strong first half and St. Louis looking to snap a three-game losing streak and rebound from a 45-7 loss to the New England Patriots in London.
The Rams had a long flight home to think about that one — and then an entire bye week to ponder what went wrong.
"Obviously, the game against New England was an embarrassment," linebacker James Laurinaitis said. "When you have that feeling in your gut from playing a game like that, you're just anxious to get out there to the next game. You can't move on to the next one fast enough. That's the way a lot of us feel. You always want to forget about the past. When you have a long bye week to think about the same game, it kind of gets under your skin a little bit."
The 49ers, meanwhile, are eager to get back on the field and find the same second-half swagger that carried them all the way to the NFC championship game last season — and oh so close to a Super Bowl after a 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual champion New York Giants.
These guys are already beginning to get the questions about where the might wind up in the NFC in terms of playoff seeding.
"We haven't talked about it. We've talked about putting our self in a good position against the division teams," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "Where we fall in the playoffs, we fall. It doesn't matter."
San Francisco has beaten Seattle and Arizona in its two previous games, and now St. Louis is next in an NFC West that has made significant strides since the 49ers quickly ran away with the division a year ago.
The Rams realize they will have to make their share of game-changing plays to have a chance against one of the NFL's hottest teams in a hostile environment.
"They're a blueprint for what you want to be as a football team," Laurinaitis said. "They take the ball away extremely well and they don't give it away. Any time you do that consistently like that, it's going to be a recipe for success."
Not that quarterback Alex Smith and San Francisco's offense are known to be sloppy with the ball and lose possession very often. Smith has said he would rather take a sack than throw an interception.
He is coming off one of his best performances yet since the Niners selected him No. 1 overall out of Utah in the 2005 draft.
In a 24-3 Oct. 29 road rout of the Cardinals on Monday Night Football, Smith completed 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. His passer rating: 157.1.
He connected with nine different receivers, and went 14 of 15 for 146 yards and two touchdowns in the first half alone. He threw two touchdown passes to Michael Crabtree as the 49ers built a 17-0 halftime lead. Randy Moss caught a 47-yard TD pass, and now Smith's challenge is to keep everybody happy. Tight end Vernon Davis is anxious to get more involved, but isn't about to complain as long as the 49ers keep piling up wins.
Running back Frank Gore loves how well-rounded this offense has become.
"You see some other teams where one or two guys have so many big stats. This offense, it's different," Gore said. "Crabtree gets the rock. Vernon gets some. Mario (Manningham). Me. So there's much talent out there. That helps us as a team, but it hurts people's fantasy teams."
That versatility presents a difficult task when it comes to game-planning a defensive scheme to stop San Francisco.
"With the exception of the Niners, offensively, the remaining three of us are quite a ways behind," Fisher said of the West. "It's no surprise to me that they were able to accomplish what they accomplished last year and what's ahead of them this year. They're 100 percent healthy at halftime and they're in position to make the run that they're expected to make."
San Francisco's defense hasn't seen Rams quarterback Sam Bradford for a while. He missed both games in the rivalry last season while nursing a high left ankle sprain.
"We haven't faced him yet. That's very worrisome because we see what he does on tape," Harbaugh said. "He's an outstanding football player."
Smith has stressed how the goal is always to play the best football in November and December, and that's what he is thinking about — not all the nice things being said about his team by the opponent this week.
"There's a lot of coach-speak that goes on back and forth. I certainly don't read about it," Smith said. "I don't think we're where we want to be."
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