LOS ANGELES -- This was the day the 49ers turned from being a nice underdog story into a legitimate Super Bowl threat.
The 49ers, playing without four key starting players, went into the stadium of the defending NFC champion Los Angeles Rams and turned it into their home -- complete with their own fans bringing the volume.
The 49ers’ defense was relentless and did more than enough to overcome some of the team’s expected offensive shortcomings in an eye-opening 20-7 victory over the Rams at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
The 49ers took the field without Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, their starting offensive tackles. Justin Skule and Daniel Brunskill filled in nicely.
They used a combination of different offensive personnel groupings, including extended runs for reserve tight ends Ross Dwelley and Levine Toilolo to compensate for the loss of do-everything fullback Kyle Juszczyk.
Cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon was playing at a high level when he was lost for approximately a month with a foot sprain. But backup Emmanuel Moseley has stepped in, and the pass defense has not missed a beat.
Are the 49ers elite? At this point -- nearly one-third into the season -- there can be only one correct answer.
It is fair to recognize the 49ers as one of the top teams in the NFL through five games. After all, the 49ers (5-0) and the New England Patriots (6-0) are the league’s only unbeaten squads.
But coach Kyle Shanahan, perhaps, is sending a message to his team that he believes the 49ers are capable of much more. When he was asked if “elite” is an apt description of the 49ers, he was not ready to go there.
“No, [I’m] not going to ever used that word. Good trick,” Shanahan said with a laugh.
“But I’m very happy with how we played. We’re 5-0, which is a great thing. But we’re not playing our best ball. We could do a lot of things better than that.”
Even with a dominating defensive performance that limited quarterback Jared Goff and the high-powered Rams offense to a meager 56 yards of net passing, the players on defense believe they can get better. There's also little doubt that the 49ers can tighten things up on offense and special teams, too.
So, can it be said now? Are the 49ers for real?
“We would like to say,” 49ers defensive end Dee Ford said. “But we still understand we got things to work on. The record shows right now, but we got to keep going. We got a lot of good teams ahead. The challenge is going to be stiff every week, and we got to answer it.”
“We’re just getting started," linebacker Fred Warner said. "We’re 5-0, which is great, but we have a long season ahead of us. It’ll take us one week at a time.”
The 49ers now hold a three-game lead in the loss column over the Rams, who fall to 3-3.
The Rams have lost back-to-back games to NFC West opponents, falling in Week 5 at the Seattle Seahawks. The Rams now face an uphill climb to get back in the division race and cannot afford too many more stumbles to remain in the thick of the NFC wild-card race.
There was no denying the importance of this game for the 49ers, especially after the Rams handled them quite easily in their two meetings last season en route to their second straight division title in Sean McVay’s first two seasons as coach.
“L.A. has gotten after us the last couple of years,” defensive lineman Solomon Thomas said. “It was a game for us to come out and show we’re for real.”
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Said rookie defensive end Nick Bosa: “It was definitely emotional, but we definitely expect to win every game we play now. We have that confidence offensively and defensively. It’s only up from here.”
Despite their five-game win streak to open the season and the temptation to get full of themselves, defensive end Arik Armstead said he plans to stick with the same approach that has made the 49ers successful up this point.
“My mindset is to take it week by week,” he said.