Jose Carlos Fajardo Contra Costa Times Prima donna? Michael Crabtree has been tough and played a key role for the 49ers in Sunday's win over Detroit.

On the 49ers: Once mocked NFC West now cleaning up

Published: Friday, Sep. 21, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Thursday, Apr. 18, 2013 - 7:45 pm

SANTA CLARA – Here's how pathetic the NFC West was in recent years: Not even two years ago, a Troy Smith-led 49ers team went into a Week 16 game in St. Louis with just five wins but a real chance to seize control of the division.

They lost, and the NFC West ultimately was taken by 7-9 Seattle, the first team to stand atop its division with a losing record.

Oh, how the rest of the league laughed and pointed at the adorable, flailing NFC West.

This year, the runt of the litter is all grown up, flexing its muscles and out for revenge.

The NFC West went 4-0 Sunday for only the second time in the past decade and is the only division with two teams – the 49ers and Cardinals – with 2-0 records. What's more, the one-time stripling has been beating up on the NFL's pretty-boy franchises.

Arizona pulled off the biggest upset so far this year by going into New England on Sunday and knocking off Tom Brady and the Patriots. Quarterback Kevin Kolb's jersey still has grass stains from a brutal preseason, but he has been sacked only once in the first two games.

The Seahawks' defense, meanwhile, snuffed out a Cowboys team that had beaten the defending Super Bowl champion Giants in Week 1 and that had 10 days to prepare for their game in Seattle.

The Rams are the only NFC West squad with a loss outside the division. But even in that game, the Lions, a 2011 playoff team, barely squeaked by at home.

St. Louis may have the brightest future of any NFL team. They own the Redskins' first-round draft picks for the next two years and Washington just lost two of its defensive starters – Brian Orakpo and Adam Carriker – for the season in a defeat to the Rams.

Then there is San Francisco, where the players mirror the division's Ugly Duckling storyline.

Alex Smith practically walked around with a "kick-me" sign on his back his first seven years in the league. Even after guiding his team to 13 wins and to the precipice of the Super Bowl last season, Smith had to endure the embarrassment of watching his own team flirt with the handsome prince, Peyton Manning.

The scoreboard after two weeks: Smith has four touchdowns and no interceptions; Manning has three touchdowns and three interceptions and flopped – badly – on national television Monday night.

Michael Crabtree – referred to as a "fake … prima donna" in former Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' infamous pregame playoff speech Jan. 13 – has been among the most blue-collar wide receivers in the league to open the season.

Crabtree has become an excellent blocker in the running game, and together he and Smith iced the 49ers' win Sunday against Detroit with a long and gritty touchdown drive.

After beating two 2011 playoff teams, San Francisco's challenge is to stay sharp Sunday in Minnesota against a Vikings team that won only three games last year.

That's where years of struggle come in handy.

The 49ers, especially their core of veterans that lead the team, know what it's like to lose. They know the sting and stigma of being awful. And they know they don't want to feel that way again.

"We know where we've been," Frank Gore said this week. "Not crossing the 50-yard line in the past, all the struggles we went through. And we know that if we stay humble and keep working, great things will keep coming."

The only problem for the 49ers this year: The rest of the division feels the same way.

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