AP Sports Writer
POSTED: 12:42 p.m. HST, Oct 31, 2011
LAST UPDATED: 12:47 p.m. HST, Oct 31, 2011
SANTA CLARA, Calif. >> Joe Staley relished his shining moment after the offensive lineman caught a 17-yard pass and celebrated madly with a two-handed point downfield to signal the first down. Nose tackle and part-time fullback Isaac Sopoaga got into the action with a key 18-yard reception in the second half.
"I have one opportunity to score and do a dance and I had to show off my moves," Staley said.
The San Francisco 49ers know they're going well when the big boys are catching meaningful balls to move the chains. They realize all is right when a flat second half still leads to a 10-point victory, as happened in Sunday's 20-10 win over Cleveland. And, when, before October is over, the team already holds a commanding four-game cushion in the NFC West.
Jim Harbaugh has become creative with his play-calling, spending the past two months learning who might be able to deliver in given situations even if it's an unconventional choice — such as the former tight end, Staley, and ex-rugby player, Sopoaga.
Staley, the talented left tackle and leader of the offensive line, made the most of his opportunity in the spotlight. Quarterback Alex Smith called his post-catch display "Prima donnaish" for someone at his position.
"If he wants to call me a Prima donna, I'll be a Prima donna," Staley said. "As long as we win."
The catch matched the longest by an offensive lineman in franchise history, and Staley became the first 49ers O-lineman with a reception since Chris Dalman on Nov. 20, 1995, at Miami.
They're all having fun during this surprising five-game winning streak, the team's first since 2001 — well before most of the core Niners players were even in the league. San Francisco, which travels to Washington to face the Redskins this week, is 6-1 for the first time since 1998. That includes three come-from-behind road wins.
"I was laughing. I gave him a 10 on that one," said defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois of Staley's performance, noting he now wants a chance to throw a pass. "When I saw him roll out, I'm like, 'All right, we must be running a screen.' When I saw the ball finally go to him, I said: 'We've got it all. We've got tackles making catches, we've got nose tackles ... it might be the center next time. (Jonathan) Goodwin might get him one, too."
Goodwin would love it — if it could be done.
"That would be great," he said. "I guess the hard part would be figuring out how to make it happen."
The way they have set themselves up, Harbaugh's 49ers could clinch their division and the franchise's first playoff berth in nine years before that highly anticipated matchup with the coach's big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving.
"The approach is not even concerning ourselves with the standings till we get to December," Harbaugh said Monday. "Then we'll see how many we have, see how many we need."
San Francisco has been far from flashy, without the big-name quarterback with a big arm who wracks up passing yards. It's been a steady group of contributors on both sides of the ball every Sunday.
Running back Frank Gore is making a strong case for his third Pro Bowl selection. The 28-year-old Gore, who received his coveted new $21 million, three-year contract extension before the season, has carried the load with four straight games of both 125-plus yards and a rushing touchdown. He passed Roger Craig for second place on the 49ers career rushing list Sunday in the process.
Gore, in his seventh NFL season, has longed to be part of a winner. He can sense a buzz at Candlestick Park, where it's been since the days of Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Terrell Owens that the 49ers have been on such a roll.
"I think our fans, they're happy, and I'm happy for them," Gore said. "There's been some rough years, they've had some rough years and they've always been there and now we're doing something really great for them."
San Francisco hasn't been to the playoffs or had a winning season since 2002, and Harbaugh in a matter of months already is being spoken of in the same sentence as the late Hall of Famer Bill Walsh when it comes to San Francisco's all-time coaching talent.
While most coaches preach preparing for the next game and not looking beyond, that's not Harbaugh. He does it his way — and, you bet, he's thinking about what must be done now to succeed in the playoffs come January.
"Generally, it's just a philosophy of life, of how we approach things as a team," Harbaugh said. "There's the one philosophy that is yesterday's a mystery, tomorrow's a mystery, we live for the present, it's a gift, that kind of thing. That's not us. We reject that.
"We live for the future. To make tomorrow better. To make this Sunday better. Everything we can do today so that we can have a better future."
Many of his players are starting to sound an awful lot like their head coach lately. Smith is all about the team whenever he speaks — and he's not the only one.
"Who's got it better than us," tweeted special teams standout Blake Costanzo, using one of Harbaugh's catch phrases. "Nooooooobody livvvin in full effect."
Notes: San Francisco OL Alex Boone played Sunday before returning to Cleveland to be with wife, Dana, who gave birth Sunday to the couple's first child, a baby boy. ... WR Braylon Edwards felt fine after his first game back on his surgically repaired right knee, Harbaugh said. Edwards had four catches in his first action since getting hurt in a Week 2 overtime loss to the Cowboys.