The San Francisco 49ers expected nothing less than to be playing solid football down the stretch with a chance to lock up a playoff spot, but by no means do they believe they're a finished product despite a win over one of the NFL's top teams.
The defending NFC champions can secure a postseason berth with a road win Sunday and a little help, though the surging Tampa Bay Buccaneers likely won't let that scenario come to fruition easily.
San Francisco (9-4) has won three straight following last week's 19-17 victory over Seattle. Frank Gore rushed 17 times for 110 yards, including a 51-yard run that helped lead to Phil Dawson's 22-yard field goal with 31 seconds remaining.
"We look at the season in quarters. It's the fourth quarter now," Gore said. "We want to be that team that gets to the next level and take that trophy. We're taking small steps and we still have a lot to learn. But that's a good thing."
The 49ers, who can clinch a playoff spot with a win, an Arizona loss and a Dallas or Philadelphia loss or tie, have limited opponents to averages of 255.3 total yards and 12.0 points during their winning streak.
They rank fourth overall in total defense.
'I think we showed a championship effort (last week),' safety Donte Whitner said. 'I think everybody around the country knows who the 49ers are now. That was a championship football game in a playoff atmosphere and we just made a few more plays than they made.'
Colin Kaepernick threw for 175 yards, a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and one interception, but the defense - which has yet to allow a 100-yard rusher - came through.
'The defense came to play,' wide receiver Michael Crabtree said. 'They saved us.'
Eric Wright's interception sealed the victory that helped bring the 49ers to the brink of a playoff berth, but he knows his former team won't go down easily. The defensive back signed a five-year, $37.5 million contract with Tampa Bay before last season, but he was released after one year and signed with San Francisco.
The Buccaneers (4-9) have won four of five after dropping their first eight.
"We know we're going to get their best shot," Wright said. "Their record may not reflect the type of ability and the type of team they are. It's a team that's going to throw it all out there on the line."
Greg Schiano's team is coming off one of its best defensive efforts of the season, allowing 214 yards and forcing five turnovers in a 27-6 win over Buffalo. It allowed an average of 412.0 yards and 23.6 points over its previous three games.
'We just don't quit, and that all starts with our head coach. That's how he is,' defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said. 'He's very consistent with his effort, and nothing really changes with how he prepares and how he comes to work every day that makes you want to work harder for that guy.'
Schiano's job may be more secure given the team's current surge that has followed plenty of drama, including the promotion of rookie quarterback Mike Glennon to starter and subsequent release of Josh Freeman. When asked if he's excited about Tampa Bay's future, Schiano tried to keep the focus on the task at hand.
"I'm more looking forward to next Sunday," Schiano said. "This is going to be a heck of a challenge. Frank Gore, Colin Kaepernick, Anquan Boldin - you're talking about really fine players. They're a really good team in all three phases."
He also believes he has one of the better defensive players in the NFL to help stop that offensive core in Lavonte David. The second-year linebacker had two interceptions last week and has a pick in three consecutive contests.
'There's certain types of leaders: there's vocal leaders, there's leaders by example. Lavonte is a leader by example, unquestionably - his work ethic, his attention to detail, his practice habits,' Schiano said. 'If you could say, how do you want a guy, as a Buc, to perform, you (would) just point to him."
Offensively, Glennon will have to contend with the league's fourth-ranked pass defense. He finished 9 of 25 for 90 yards and two interceptions last week, though he also threw a pair of TDs.
Glennon has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 15 touchdowns and seven picks with an 86.4 passer rating in 10 starts.
"I think you have to look at his body of work, especially as a rookie quarterback," Schiano said. "His body of work is pretty impressive. We have a team that's coming into town that plays great defense. He's been grinding really, really hard, and I just want him to take a breath."
Gore rushed for 125 yards and a touchdown as the 49ers won the most recent meeting 48-3 on Oct. 9, 2011.
The Associated Press News Service
The Associated Press
All Rights Reserved