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49ers closing in on playoff spot

By Michael Rushton, NFL Contributing Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Taco Bell's current television campaign features Brian Wilson of Major League Baseball's San Francisco Giants coming in to "close out" a restaurant patron's meal.

The chalupa-hawking chain may not have to look much further to find its next spokesman; 49ers defensive end Justin Smith has had no trouble finishing off opponents this year.

For the second time this season, the veteran made a big play late in the game to prevent a potential rally against the 49ers when he came up with a fourth- down stop that preserved his team's 27-20 win over the New York Giants on Sunday. Back in Week 4, a hustling Smith forced a fumble on Philadelphia wide receiver Jeremy Maclin following a reception with just over two minutes to go, allowing San Francisco to hold on for a 24-23 victory.

That win over the Eagles was the second of what is now a seven-game winning streak -- the Niners' longest since 1997 -- and Smith had a literal hand in furthering that run on Sunday.

With San Francisco up by seven against the NFC East-leading Giants and facing a quarterback in Eli Manning who has been known to make some big plays late in games, Smith got a hand on a 4th-and-2 pass from the 49ers' 10- yard line. When the ball fell harmlessly to the ground, the Niners celebrated one of their biggest wins of the season, a victory that pushed their record to 8-1 and kept them five games up on Arizona and Seattle for first place in the NFC West.

Just another big moment for one of the better defenses in the league this year, and Smith has been a big part of that excellence.

"That's our closer. That's our big-time player," said cornerback Carlos Rogers, who had two interceptions against New York, of Smith. "People talk about him getting old and he's not doing things. Justin is making plays."

San Francisco's seven-game win streak is its longest since an 11-game run during the 1997 season.
Smith had six tackles in the game and has logged 4 1/2 sacks on the year in addition to a pair of forced fumbles. While there is plenty of talent lining up behind Smith on defense, there is little doubt he is the heart of the unit.

"I told him on the sidelines, series after series, how much I respect him," said decorated linebacker Patrick Willis. "I think he'll be one of the best players I'll have ever played with in my life and it's been a pleasure playing with him.

"Week-in and week-out he comes to play. He practices hard in practice and goes hard on Sundays. He's a tremendous player."

San Francisco's seven-game win streak is its longest since an 11-game run during the 1997 season. With just seven games left in the regular season, it is safe to say that the Niners will be heading to the postseason for the first time since 2002 barring an epic collapse.

While past 49er teams bring up memories of offensive stars such as Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice and Roger Craig, it is the defense that has been the key to the team's success this season. San Francisco ranks first in points (15.3) and rushing yards (73.2) allowed per game and is tops in the NFL with 66 passes defensed.

The 49ers have not allowed a 100-yard rusher in 31 straight games or a rushing touchdown in 10 straight.

Praise should also go to first-year Niners coach Jim Harbaugh, who is the third rookie head coach in team history to start 8-1, but he prefers to pass it on to his players.

"I don't take any credit for it," Harbaugh said, adding how hard his team works each week.

"These guys are locked in to see if they can't get a mile-an-hour faster each day. Love them for it. I take no credit for it because they were that way before we got here."

They also weren't a playoff team. Now they are.

IS THE HUNT OVER FOR THE BENGALS?

The Cincinnati Bengals figured to show just what they were made of this past Sunday versus the Pittsburgh Steelers. The verdict was encouraging despite a tough loss, but the team's gutsy effort may have sucked a little out of the tanks, too.

After quickly falling behind by two touchdowns in the first quarter, the Bengals rallied to go toe-to-toe with the defending AFC champions before falling just short in a 24-17 defeat. That loss snapped Cincinnati's five-game winning streak and put them a half-game behind 7-3 Pittsburgh for first place in the AFC North, with Baltimore also just off the pace. The Bengals visit the Ravens this weekend.

So yes, the Bengals and rookie quarterback Andy Dalton proved they can play with the league's elite. But the TCU product also logged his fourth multi- interception game of the season and second in three weeks. He completed a career low-tying 50 percent of his passes against the Steelers for the first time since Oct. 2.

"We didn't play our best game, and we were in this game the whole time," said Dalton. "There are some positive things to take away from the loss, but it hurts to lose. There were some good things to take away, but were going to do everything we can to get ready and get back next week."

Cincinnati was also down two of its best players before the end of the game, losing rookie wide receiver A.J. Green to a knee injury and cornerback Leon Hall, who will miss the rest of the season with an Achilles tear.

Hall had played in all 16 games in each of his first four seasons, and his absence left the Bengals with just two healthy corners in Nate Clements and Kelly Jennings. Adam Jones missed Sunday's game with a hamstring issue.

"It's unfortunate, obviously, with Leon's injury because he's been so durable," said Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis. "I think he's probably one of the most durable guys I've been around."

Green, meanwhile, said he should play this weekend in the big game versus the Ravens.

"I don't think it's anything that serious. I think I'll be back," he said.

Cincinnati still has plenty of time to make some noise in the division. It plays Baltimore twice, including the final game of the season on Jan. 1, and has a rematch in Pittsburgh on Dec. 4.

Comments? Criticism? Applause? Contact Michael Rushton at mrushton@sportsnetwork.com.

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