SAN FRANCISCO -- Running back Frank Gore carried the 49ers' flag for the previous six years during a time when the franchise averaged nearly 10 losses a season.On Sunday, it was only appropriate that Gore carried a giant 49ers flag into the locker room as the team celebrated its first NFC West title since 2002.The 49ers' defense dominated the St. Louis Rams in a 26-0 victory at Candlestick Park. But while the 49ers were pitching a shutout, they also removed a void in the careers of Gore and quarterback Alex Smith."I'm probably the No. 1 fan of Alex," Gore said. "I'm very happy for Alex. He had some tough times here. Being the No. 1 pick, he had a lot of tough times, ups and downs. Just seeing him just sticking it out. . . he wanted to stay here and be with us. When you see that, you know we have the right leaders."Smith and Gore came to the 49ers in the same 2005 draft. Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in that draft, agreed to remain with the 49ers after the 2008 season when he agreed to a sizable pay cut. Smith also eschewed the chance to test free agency this offseason, to sign a one-year contract.Gore lobbied for a contract extension during training camp because he had no desire to become a free agent at the end of the season. He agreed to a three-year contract extension before the start of the regular season."This is where I want to be," Gore said. "I have great guys who I am very close with and I knew that we had the team to do what we are doing now."Now, both players will experience the playoffs for the first time in their seven-year careers."This is the first step that we had to do," Smith said. "Obviously, it hasn't been done around here in almost a decade. So we talked about it since I've been here, and it's no different this year."Gore reached two significant milestones on Sunday. In addition to helping the 49ers punch a ticket for the playoffs with a 10-2 record, Gore also officially became recognized as the 49ers' all-time rushing leader.Gore gained 73 yards on 21 rushing attempts to eclipse the total Joe "The Jet" Perry accumulated during his 12 seasons after the 49ers became an NFL franchise. Gore, who needed 22 yards to surpass Perry, now has 7,417 career rushing yards."Got to see Frank get the record and you clinch the division," Smith said. "So, yeah, pretty sweet."Smith also reached a milestone, as he recorded his highest career passer rating (142.3) in the victory. Smith completed 17 of 23 passes for 274 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions.Smith threw a perfect 52-yard touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree, who caught four passes for 96 yards. Kyle Williams, who got additional playing time with Braylon Edwards resting his ailing knee and shoulder, turned a short hitch pattern into a 56-yard touchdown in the fourth quarter.As much as it might seem like nice closure, though, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said this movie has yet to reach its conclusion."I don't think that's what our team's about," Harbaugh said. "I don't think we're a Hollywood team. It's a blue-collar team."Since the 49ers' last playoff appearance, Dennis Erickson, Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary have failed to go where Harbaugh has already taken the team in his first season. And he did it with a nucleus of players who have been with the franchise through some bitter times."Each year that they've been here, thinking that was going to be the year," Harbaugh said. "It's a disappointment when you don't make that. It's a whole core group of them."It feels good for them. That us new guys -- us first-year guys on the team -- could be part of this and do that for them. . . for all those strong, mighty men that have been carrying the flag for this many years."The defense did most of the heavy lifting on Sunday, and they did it without linebacker Patrick Willis, who sustained a hamstring strain in the first quarter. Willis is scheduled to undergo an MRI examination on Monday.The 49ers' postgame locker room was not as jubilant as after victories earlier this season over Philadelphia, Detroit or the New York Giants. That's because the 49ers do not feel as if their journey is complete."It feels good, but it's just another step," Williams said. "We have to keep it going. We've got to keep moving on into the playoffs, and we've got to do something in the playoffs."It doesn't end here. This isn't the end-all, be-all. This isn't extreme jubilation. We're happy. We're celebrating. But in the same breath, we've got to keep it moving."One area in which the 49ers can undoubtedly improve is in the red zone. David Akers kicked four field goals, as the 49ers have scored touchdowns on just two of their past 11 trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line.Akers kicked field goals of 36, 19, 28 and 34 yards. Akers has made 32 of 37 field-goal attempts, giving him the franchise record of made field goals in a season -- and there are still four games remaining.Although the 49ers clinched the division, they still have some work to do before clinching their playoff path. After the 49ers' victory, many players gathered around TVs in the locker room to watch the Green Bay Packers' last-second victory over the New York Giants. The 49ers remain two games behind the Packers in the race for homefield advantage in the NFC playoffs.But the 49ers hold a virtual two-game lead over the New Orleans Saints for the No. 2 seed, which assures a first-round playoff bye and a home game in the divisional round. (With a victory Sunday night over the Detroit Lions, the Saints would remain one game behind the 49ers. But the 49ers would also hold the tie-breaker edge with a better conference record.)"I don't think we're in a position to rest right now," Harbaugh said. "We need all hands on deck. If we're going to get everything that's out there for us, and all that we could get, this is a time to build momentum, to improve, and to position ourselves the best that we possibly can."
SANTA CLARA – Rookie cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon did not win the right to suit up for the 49ers’ first four games. Behind the scenes, he made it his mission to earn a contributing role.
“He really started to get better with his coordination with his feet from the bump-and-run coverage and from playing ‘off.’ There’s always a light that goes on,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said. “And we felt that for a couple weeks from Ahkello. Once he did that, he definitely earned the right to be out there.”
The plan was for Witherspoon to rotate into the action and share time with starters Rashard Robinson and Dontae Johnson. But he played just six snaps on Oct. 8 against Indianapolis before sustaining a concussion. Witherspoon returned to action last week and played 34 of the 49ers’ 74 snaps last week at Washington. He showed enough to coninue getting significant playing time.
“He’s earned the right to play,” 49ers defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said. “He works his tail off in practice. He’s so deliberate in his approach. Whether it was scout team, whether it was team reps, whether it was walk-through, it didn’t matter.”
Witherspoon, the 49ers’ third-round draft pick at No. 66 overall, had a pedestrian training camp. Taking his lumps in August showed him what he needed to do to get into real games in October.
“I really turned up my focus, my intent every day in practice,” Witherspoon said. “What I did in camp wasn’t good enough to be a starting corner in this league, and that’s what I learned.
“I really focused on being aware of what it takes. That’s something I implemented these last four weeks -- that every day focus and competing on every single ball, and taking the mindset that no ball’s caught on me. I think that’s really helped my game, and helped these coaches trust me, as well.”
Witherspoon expected Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins to attack him. But of the 25 plays he was in coverage last week, Witherspoon saw only three passes come his way. He surrendered two receptions for 33 yards, according to Pro Football Focus.
“Just being a rookie, I thought it was going to come, where they were going to be taking that one shot,” Witherspoon said. “I kept waiting for it to happen, but it didn’t happen. Going up against a smart quarterback, I know he saw me out there.
“There were a few times he looked my way in coverage. I wasn’t perfect in coverage, but I think he was looking. And I thought I did a good job.”
Witherspoon (6 foot 3, 195 pounds) is comfortable lining up on either side of the field, which he did during his college career at Colorado. He said he has not put on much weight but he has added more muscle, which has allowed him a better chance to compete physically against bigger NFL receivers.
Witherspoon fully expects to be challenged on Sunday when he is expected to see considerable playing time against the Dallas Cowboys at Levi’s Stadium. Witherspoon figures Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott will be paying particularly close attention any time Dez Bryant lines up on his side of the field.
“They’re going to be looking at the ‘rook,’ ” Witherspoon said.
Said Shanahan, “They’re going to try to do that with all our DBs, so I don’t think it even matters who’s out there. They’re going to attack when we’re in single safety, which we are the majority of the time. They’re going to go outside and keep going out there until you stop them.”
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EDITOR'S NOTE: Watch Kyle Shanahan's full sit-down interview with Matt Maiocco on "49ers Game Plan," which is scheduled to air Saturday at 9 p.m. on NBC Bay Area (Ch. 3).
The NFL fined 49ers wide receiver Pierre Garçon $24,309 for unnecessary roughness in last week’s game against Washington.
Garçon, who was not penalized on the play, lowered his helmet and struck Washington safety Montae Nicholson at the end of an 8-yard pass reception in the second quarter.
In 2013, the NFL passed a rule that bans the ball carrier from initiating contact with the crown of his helmet in the open field.
Nicholson’s helmet flew off and he remained on the ground for a couple of minutes. He was evaluated for a possible concussion and shoulder injury. However, Nicholson was cleared and he returned to action.
After the play, Garçon and Washington safety D.J. Swearinger exchanged words, and Swearinger took a swipe at Garçon’s facemask. Swearinger was penalized for unsportsmanlike conduct.
The NFL fined Swearinger $9,115 for unnecessary roughness.