A five-game win streak has the San Francisco 49ers back on pace for their perennial playoff run under coach Jim Harbaugh.
They've overcome a lot to reach the season's halfway mark with a 6-2 record. When they get back from this weekend's bye, their main goal will be to overtake the Seattle Seahawks for the NFC West lead.
Helping the 49ers' cause are the anticipated arrivals of key reinforcements: wide receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree, cornerback Eric Wright, defensive tackle Tank Carradine and linebacker Aldon Smith.
"I never take away from the men who've put in work the first half of the season, but we are getting guys back, and young guys now have eight games under their belt," general manager Trent Baalke said. "Your roster should get better as the season goes on."
What's impressed Baalke most is the way the 49ers responded from adversity, of which there's been plenty, starting with their Super Bowl XLVII hangover.
"The way coaches and players continued to grind, and the way they responded to adversity, injuries and off-field issues . . . The way they were able to regain their focus was special," Baalke added.
After a dominant debut against the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers lost back-to-back games for the first time under Harbaugh, who's led them to division titles and NFC Championship games in his previous two seasons.
Then came a high-scoring, run-oriented spree that was complemented by a turnover-forcing defense. It started, on three days' rest, when they went on the road and easily won a Thursday night affair at St. Louis 35-11. Comfortable wins ensued over the Houston Texans, Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars.
The latter two wins came on their longest road trip of the season, an 11-day excursion that culminated with a 42-10 rout of the winless Jaguars at London's Wembley Stadium.
Here are the midseason's highlights and lowlights:
Offensive MVP: Frank Gore has smashed through the wall that's supposed to stop 30-year-old running backs. Seemingly relegated to a pass-blocking role earlier this season, he has run for two touchdowns in each of the past two games and has seven such scores. Other nominees: Anquan Boldin, Vernon Davis, Colin Kaepernick.
Defensive MVP: It's no mistake that NaVorro Bowman is far and away their leading tackler, and it's not just because Patrick Willis has been limited by hand and groin injuries. Bowman's presence might be the defense's most intimidating, and that's boded well for a team without Aldon Smith after Week3. Other nominees: Justin Smith, Eric Reid, Carlos Rogers.
Best win: Each of the past five have been needed, and although the Sept.26 victory at St. Louis got them back on track, the much-needed convincing win came in a 34-3 walloping of the Houston Texans on "Sunday Night Football." Kaepernick needed to complete only six passes, illustrating just how dominant the 49ers were with a sound rushing attack and a ball-hawking defense (see: Tramaine Brock pick-6).
Worst loss: They didn't just lose at Seattle in Week2 amid world-record crowd noise. They got pummeled and humbled 29-3. Those effects carried over to a surprising 27-7 home loss the next week against Indianapolis. But that Seahawks' defeat is what rots in their gut most.
Worst distraction: Aldon Smith's Sept.20 arrest for an alleged drunken-driving accident rattled the 49ers to the core. After a questionable move to play Smith two days later, he entered an inpatient treatment facility. He has missed the past five games but is done with treatment and was taken off the non-football-injury list by the team Thursday.
Offensive question: Now that their running game is successfully "grinding the meat" again, can they air it out? That's a question that might be answered with an emphatic yes if Manningham, Crabtree or anyone else steps up for Kaepernick besides Boldin and Davis.
Defensive question: Without much pass rush, the 49ers will have to stay strong in the secondary, so how will the cornerbacks corps play out with Wright's expected addition at the possible roster-spot expense of Nnamdi Asomugha.
Special-teams question: Will the 49ers make a rare move and demote someone based on performance instead of injury, that being return specialist Kyle Williams? If LaMichael James isn't given a shot, they might turn to Perrish Cox on punt returns and Kendall Hunter or Anthony Dixon on kickoff returns.
Game to circle: A Dec.8 Candlestick affair against Seattle might determine the division title and perhaps the NFC's home-field advantage. Runner-up game-to-circle: a Nov.17 trip to New Orleans.
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