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Lowell Cohn: Credit Jim Harbaugh for winning with depleted 49ers

  • Jim Harbaugh congratulates his players during the first half this past Sunday at Wembley Stadium in London. (MATT DUNHAM / Associated Press)

This season is different from Jim Harbaugh's first two seasons as coach of the 49ers. This season may not feel different, but it is.

In his first two seasons, Harbaugh rode into Candlestick Park on a white stallion. FYI, that was merely a metaphor. It's not like he rode up the Bayshore Freeway from Palo Alto on the Lone Ranger's horse Silver with a police escort. But it sure feels like it.

He won the NFC West both seasons, controlled the division both seasons and, although winning the division is hardly easy, he made the entire enterprise seem almost stress free.

Got that?

Cut to this season. The 49ers are in second place in the NFC West. It's true, after a wobbly start, they have won five games in a row. And that's not chopped liver, or goose liver pate, if you're a gourmet. And it's true they just murdered an alleged NFL team in London. And it's true they are very good.

But they are in second place by one game to their arch nemesis the Seattle Seahawks. (Note: Every team needs an arch nemesis to spice up life. Think Giants-Dodgers.) This being in second place -- call it second-banananess -- makes the current season different from what came before.

It means every 49ers' game -- even that thing in London -- has an extra added quality of seriousness bordering on desperation. The Niners simply cannot make a mistake, cannot lose unexpectedly, or lose at all. If they do, they risk falling further behind the Seahawks and, as renowned scholars say, "That ain't good."

There's a reason the 49ers can't fall behind Seattle. This is the same reason they must, once again, win their division. If they end up a wild-card team, they play in the wild-card round -- an extra game -- and they play some weird place on the road in, say, a snowy Green Bay or Dallas. Not ideal.

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