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November 20, 2011
49ers secure winning season, but there's no time to celebrate

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SAN FRANCISCO - The 49ers on Sunday guaranteed themselves a winning record for first time since 2002, but no one in the locker room was reaching for the confetti. In fact, the 49ers locker room was subdued and nearly empty soon after the 23-7 win over the Cardinals. Most of the players were showered, dressed and on the team buses in record time.

That's because of the team's tight turnaround this week. The 49ers travel to Baltimore for a Thursday night contest, making them the first west coast team to fly to the eastern time zone for Thanksgiving since the Los Angeles Rams visited Detroit in 1975.

Coach Jim Harbaugh told his players after the game that they would have to cut their celebration time in half. "It's usually six hours. We told the fellas we'll cut that to three," he said. "Coaches even less. We'll go home and get a bite to eat with the family, maybe two hours. Then go into the building and start working on Baltimore."

Another reason for restraint was that the 49ers dominated the Cardinals on the statistics sheet but, due to mistakes and blown opportunities, had relatively little to show for it at game's end.

The 49ers won the time-of-possession battle 44:16 to 15:44. That's the most lopsided margin of any NFL game this season, and the 49ers best mark in a non-overtime game since 1991. The Cardinals did not pick up a first down until the 8-minute mark in the second quarter. The 49ers defense, meanwhile, forced five turnovers, four of which gave the 49ers offense the ball in Arizona territory.

Still, the 49ers could not pull away.

Kicker David Akers, who has missed only two field goals entering the game, failed on three attempts in the first half. Two were blocked; a third from 49 yard was pushed wide left. The 49ers pass catchers dropped five passes in the first half - including one by receiver Braylon Edwards in the end zone - while quarterback Alex Smith misfired to a wide-open Michael Crabtree in the end zone in the second quarter.

"I think we all realized, especially on offense, how much we left out there," said Smith, who finished 20-38 for 267 yards. "We really needed to come out and set the tone with that first drive of the (second) half, and that was kind of what the focus was on."

That drive to open the third quarter lasted 13 plays and knocked 7:48 off the game clock. Harbaugh said it was sparked by a short reception by Crabtree, which the receiver turned into a 29-yard gain. Crabtree finished with seven catches for 120 yards, two yards shy of his career best. "Just his extra effort," Harbaugh said. "His third and fourth effort when he got his hands on the ball."

The 49ers seem to find a new offensive weapon with each victory whether it's Isaac Sopoaga catching a critical third-down pass against Cleveland or fullback Bruce Miller hauling in his first NFL touchdown reception against Washington.

This time it was receiver Kyle Williams.

The second-year receiver entered the season fifth on the team's depth chart, and he had four receptions when Sunday's game began. He had five for 54 yards against the Cardinals, including an eight-yard touchdown that capped San Francisco's opening drive of the second half.

The 49ers had their most success with multiple-receiver formations. That often left Williams matched up with Arizona rookie linebacker Sam Acho, who played defensive end in college. "The guys that we have on the team - when we spread it out it's hard to match up one-on-one with us," Williams said.

With a Seattle loss next week and a 49ers win on Thursday, San Francisco can wrap up its first NFC West title since 2002. Harbaugh, of course, will be matching wits with brother, John, for the first time since they were children, and he won't let the short work week be an excuse.

Asked if he and his assistants would stay up all night to work on the game plan, Harbaugh said, "We'll see how good we feel, how much work we've gotten in by midnight. If it ... goes past that, I'll stay on my couch at the office."

-- Matt Barrows



MATTHEW BARROWS

Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.

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