Commentary

San Francisco's winning formula

These fundamentals have led to the 49ers' early success; are they sustainable?

Updated: October 4, 2011, 12:25 PM ET
By Vince Verhei | Football Outsiders
Alex SmithKirby Lee/US PresswireAlex Smith has taken care of the football and is a reason why the 49ers are off to a quick start.

Congratulations to the San Francisco 49ers on being the first NFL team this season to clinch a playoff berth!

All right, that's a little premature. It's not a 100 percent certainty that the 49ers will make the playoffs. It's closer to 90 percent. Following their 24-23 upset of the Philadelphia Eagles, they have a league-high 89.1 percent chance of making the playoffs, according to Football Outsiders' playoff odds report. They're the only team in the NFL with a two-game lead in their division, and given the competition (the St. Louis Rams, Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals are a combined 2-10), it's hard to see how they don't win the NFC West.

Usually in this space, we focus on the flaws of the losing team. This week we're going to turn things around and concentrate on the victorious 49ers. They're far from an elite team, but they do three things very well. Ironically, one year after firing head coach Mike Singletary, the 49ers have mastered the three steps of winning with smashmouth football: turnovers, run defense and special teams. Let's look at how they handled those three steps against Philadelphia, how they've done over the course of the season and how they should perform going forward.


To read more about how the San Francisco 49ers have gotten off to a fast start under new coach Jim Harbaugh, sign up for ESPN Insider.