SANTA CLARA — Offensive lineman Joe Staley relished his shining moment after catching a 17-yard pass and celebrated madly with a two-handed point downfield to signal the first down. Nose tackle and part-time fullback Isaac Sopoaga got into the action with a key 18-yard reception in the second half.
"I have one opportunity to score and do a dance and I had to show off my moves," Staley said.
The 49ers know they're going well when the big boys are catching meaningful balls to move the chains. They realize all is right when a flat second half still leads to a 10-point victory, as happened in Sunday's 20-10 win over Cleveland.
And, when, entering November, the team already holds a four-game cushion in the NFC West.
Coach Jim Harbaugh has become creative with his play-calling, spending the past two months learning who might be able to deliver in given situations even if it's an unconventional choice — such as former tight end and ex-rugby player Sopoaga.
Staley, the talented left tackle and leader of the offensive line, made the most of his opportunity in the spotlight. Quarterback Alex Smith called his post-catch display "prima donnaish" for someone at his position.
"If he wants to call me a prima donna, I'll be a prima donna," Staley said. "As long as we win."
The catch matched the longest by an offensive lineman in franchise history, and Staley became the first 49ers O-lineman with a reception since Chris Dalman on Nov.20, 1995, at Miami.
They're all having fun during this surprising five-game winning streak, the team's first since 2001 — well before most of the core Niners players were even in the league. San Francisco, which travels to Washington to face the Redskins next Sunday, is 6-1 for the first time since 1998. That includes three come-from-behind road wins.
"I was laughing. I gave him a 10 on that one," defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois said of Staley's performance, noting he now wants a chance to throw a pass. "When I saw him roll out, I'm like, &‘All right, we must be running a screen.' When I saw the ball finally go to him, I said: &‘We've got it all. We've got tackles making catches, we've got nose tackles ... it might be the center next time. (Jonathan) Goodwin might get him one, too."
Goodwin would love it — if it could be done.
"That would be great," he said. "I guess the hard part would be figuring out how to make it happen."
The way they have set themselves up, Harbaugh's 49ers could clinch their division and the franchise's first playoff berth in nine years before that highly anticipated matchup with the coach's big brother, John, and the Baltimore Ravens on Thanksgiving.
"The approach is not even concerning ourselves with the standings till we get to December," Harbaugh said Monday. "Then we'll see how many we have, see how many we need."
San Francisco has been far from flashy, without the big-name quarterback with a big arm who racks up passing yards. It's been a steady group of contributors on both sides of the ball every Sunday.
Running back Frank Gore is making a strong case for his third Pro Bowl selection. Gore, 28, who received his coveted new $21 million, three-year contract extension before the season, has carried the load with four straight games of both 125-plus yards and a rushing touchdown. He passed Roger Craig for second place on the 49ers career rushing list Sunday.