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

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.

It also means they likely would play the NFC championship game in Seattle because the Seahawks, who would be the division champs, would have home-field advantage. The 49ers have had trouble with the Seahawks in Seattle, remember that. The Niners need to avoid the above scenario at all costs.

I know what you are thinking. The Seahawks are no big deal. They didn't show well on Monday night against the Rams and, surely, they will lose -- get bumped off -- somewhere sometime in their schedule, especially on the road.

A couple of things about that. When I look at the result of the Rams game, I notice the Seahawks won. Winning is good. When I look at the standings, I notice the Seahawks are in first place and the 49ers are not. Being in first place is good and I'm sure the Niners gladly would trade places right now with those birds from up north. When I look into the future, I'm sure the Seahawks will get bumped off unexpectedly. But so will the 49ers. Believe me they will not win all of their games. Three in particular are troublesome -- Carolina, New Orleans, Seattle.

What makes those games even more troublesome is the state of the 49ers' health -- sports pundits would say "healthwise." Please don't ever say healthwise. The 49ers have exactly one serious running back, one serious wide receiver and one serious tight end. They are without pass rusher Aldon Smith. Harbaugh says receivers Mario Manningham and Michael Crabtree will play and contribute soon. He also says Aldon Smith may return soon, court case notwithstanding. Saying isn't doing.

Never in Harbaugh's tenure has his team been so depleted. And this is not the best time to be depleted, depletionwise. Why? Because the 49ers are playing catch-up while they are hurt.

I'm not saying the 49ers are in bad shape. I'm saying they're in different shape than Harbaugh's first two seasons. I'm saying the team is playing basic -- very basic -- football. Run the ball. Throw when you have to. Play tough defense, although the defense is not as tough as it used to be. Oh, right, and play well on special teams. I always forget special teams.

Although the stakes are higher and rougher for the Niners, Harbaugh has maintained a cheerful disposition. I can't believe I just wrote that. He still is secretive and sometimes you ask him a question and he gives you that wacko look like you just spoke Hebrew. But he answers more questions than before and he answers using more words. (Note to Harbaugh: Encourage Colin Kaepernick to use his words.) Sometimes, he even smiles.

And I'll say something else. The Niners started slowly. At one point they had a losing record -- 1-2. But even though they are depleted, Harbaugh has them playing well, pressing the Seahawks.

This is his best coaching performance in San Francisco even if it may not seem like his best coaching performance. It's easy to be great when your roster is loaded and everything is going great. Be great when you are hurt and vulnerable. Keep the team playing at the highest level when demanding that seems almost cruel.

Harbaugh has been just great. Give him credit. Now, do it eight more times, Jim. And then do it in the postseason.

You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.