The 49ers can move closer to clinching a division title before the end of the month by extending their longest winning streak in 14 years when they host the Giants on Sunday.
New York (6-2), which failed to reach the playoffs each of the last two seasons, is two games ahead of second-place Dallas and three ahead of Philadelphia, the trendy preseason favorite to dominate the division.
The Giants only bolstered their status as viable contenders for a division title by winning 24-20 at New England last week, as Eli Manning(notes) hit tight end Jake Ballard(notes) for a one-yard TD pass with 15 seconds to play.
While New York’s rise has been unexpected, the 49ers (7-1) own the NFL’s second-best record under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh after finishing at or below .500 in each of the past eight seasons.
They’ve already surpassed their win total from last year after beating Washington 19-11 on the road last week, giving them six consecutive victories for the first time since an 11-game run in 1997.
“A lot of people doubted us, a lot of people put us out because we didn’t have an offseason, we had a whole new staff, we’re going to be lost and running around with our heads cut off,” defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois(notes) said. “But with the dedication and all the time everybody put aside to build it we weren’t going to have no lacking. We just feel like this is a team, it’s not individual play no more. It’s actually a team.”
San Francisco has the league’s top-ranked run defense, yielding 70.8 yards per contest and 61.3 over the last three games.
Gore has topped 100 yards in each of the last five games, totaling 634 in that stretch with an average of 6.3 per carry and four touchdowns. He gained 107 yards on 19 carries last week, also suffering an ankle injury that he claims won’t be a problem come Sunday.
“I’ll be all right. I’m cool,” Gore said. “Yeah, I’ll be all right.”
Harbaugh is also impressed with Alex Smith, who is having his best season since being drafted first overall in 2005. His 97.3 passer rating and 64.1 completion percentage are career highs, while he’s tossed 10 touchdown passes and just two interceptions.
“He’s every bit the elite quarterback as there is playing in the game right now,” Harbaugh said. “It’s a whole body of work. There’s evidence … really however you want to pick his performance apart. He’s playing at a very high level.”
Harbaugh may point to Smith’s impressive success late in games, as he leads the NFL with a 131.0 rating in the final two minutes, and is at 106.7 for the fourth quarter.
While Smith’s status as one of the NFL’s top quarterbacks is up for debate, Manning is backing up a bold claim he made last summer that he’s among the elite.
The Giants’ three-game winning streak has been a result of Manning’s late-game prowess. He’s engineered game-winning drives in the fourth quarter in each victory, including last week’s eight-play, 80-yard drive that ended Tom Brady’s(notes) 31-game regular-season home winning streak.
Manning’s fourth-quarter success is evident in his league-leading 121.7 rating in that period.
If Nicks remains unavailable, Victor Cruz(notes) will be called upon again to be Manning’s primary target. Cruz has a team-leading 588 yards on 34 catches with four touchdowns, and his six grabs and 91 yards led the Giants last week.
Despite the Giants’ success in the first half of the season, Tuck isn’t getting too excited.
“Nobody’s going to remember what we did in November,” Tuck said. “Nobody’s going to remember what we did in December. It’s about getting back to that Super Bowl and winning that.”
The Niners are already looking toward the playoffs, and wins in their next two games combined with losses by Seattle and Arizona - both 2-6 - would be enough to clinch the NFC West.
“We’re trying to secure a playoff spot now so we don’t have to worry about that later in the season,” Francois said.
The Giants have won all three meetings since they blew a 24-point lead in a dramatic 39-38 playoff defeat in San Francisco on Jan. 5, 2003.