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SANTA CLARA - Joe Staley has been here for one major turnaround, the Jim Harbaugh phenomenon that saw the 49ers rebound from eight consecutive seasons of non-winning football to back-to-back-to-back appearances in the conference championship game. So Staley had some perspective when he addressed reporters after the Niners’ 31-21 victory against the New York Giants at Levi’s Stadium on Sunday.

“I’ve been a part of a lot of wins with this franchise over the 11 years that I’ve been here,” he said. “And this win felt just as good as winning the NFC championship.”

Come again? This was not a victory that will carry the 49ers to the playoffs, or even boost them out of last place in the NFC West. If the Niners eventually win another title and someone chronicles it in a book, there will not be a chapter devoted to Nov. 12, 2017. This was not a game that invoked a Gatorade shower in its aftermath; when it ended, one of the 49ers players shook some water out of a 20-ounce plastic bottle onto the heads of coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch.

But it was worth something. It really was. Going from four wins to five, or from eight wins to nine, is a steppingstone. Going from zero wins to one, when you have been losing since early September, is a life experience.

And no, this doesn’t mean the 49ers are a good team now. They are 1-9 for a reason. Their receiving corps is a collage clipped from leftover magazine articles, their defense is frequently a missed tackle waiting to happen, their interior offensive line can be a sieve. But give these guys credit. Even as they bumbled their way through a winless first half of the season, they never lacked fight.

“You lose nine games in a row, especially some of the tough ways we did it, and then feeling like you’re getting more banged up as it went along — it’s tough,” Shanahan said after his first win as a head coach. “It’s tough work. It’s a lot easier when you just check out and point fingers at people and blame it on someone else.”

Louis Murphy didn’t know what to expect when he rejoined the 49ers last week. He had been with the team in training camp and the preseason, but was cut on Sept. 1. The Niners brought him back after a wave of injuries at wide receiver, including No. 1 receiver Pierre Garcon’s season-ending neck fracture. Murphy was surprised at the positive atmosphere that greeted him.

“I didn’t know if the locker room was gonna be down, or dejected,” said Murphy, an eight-year veteran who used to play for the Raiders. “But when I came back, man, it didn’t seem like an 0-9 team.”

Staley has seen that demeanor. It’s why he was feeling emotional as he stood in front of his locker Sunday.

“That’s why I’m so proud of this football team,” he said. “Guys don’t quit. And we have a really close locker room. Much, much closer than the last couple years, and much closer than Harbaugh’s last year.”

Granted, those are low bars to clear. The atmosphere here declined in 2014 as Harbaugh feuded with CEO Jed York and general manager Trent Baalke. And things scarcely got better as the 49ers cycled through goofy Jim Tomsula and personality-averse Chip Kelly in 2015 and 2016. But it’s a tribute to Shanahan and Lynch that, despite a lack of success on the field, these Niners haven’t stopped fighting.

FRIDAY’S RESULTS

Quarterfinals

Division 2

Campolindo 44, Maria Carrillo 20

Granada 56, Casa Grande 28

Division 3

Cardinal Newman 49, Encinal 32

Division 5

Middletown 34, Ferndale 6

SATURDAY'S RESULTS

(seedings in parentheses)

Division 2

(6) Ukiah 41, (3) Northgate 34

(5) Windsor 20, (4) Livermore 9

Division 3

(2) Rancho Cotate 38, (6) Eureka 35

Division 5

(3) Kelseyville 20, (11) Willits 14

(4) Clear Lake 34, (5) Arcata 29

And believe me, NFL teams do give up sometimes. We’ve all seen it. In fact, we saw it here Sunday.

The Giants came in with a 1-8 record, and have experienced more discord than the 49ers. Head coach Ben McAdoo has suspended each of his starting cornerbacks, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Janoris Jenkins, at various points this season. The New York press is openly wondering when McAdoo will be canned.

Against the 49ers, there were moments when the Giants looked lifeless, or at least unbothered by trivialities such as winning. Take quarterback C.J. Beathard’s touchdown run early in the fourth quarter. It was a well-designed play, with the movement of the line going left and Beathard faking a handoff before rolling right and diving into the end zone to put San Francisco up 24-13.

The replays didn’t look right, though. Beathard had three Giants in position to hem him in, and only fullback Kyle Juszczyk as a lead blocker. But linebacker Calvin Munson and defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul made halfhearted attempts to get to Beathard, and cornerback Eli Apple made virtually no effort to leave the end zone and cut off the quarterback. There were other, less obvious examples, too.

Afterward, I asked Staley if he sensed the Giants were quitting. That’s a serious charge to levy against an opponent, and Staley chose his words carefully. But he didn’t entirely refute the notion.

“After Quise made that big play,” Staley said, referring to Marquise Goodwin’s 83-yard touchdown reception in the second quarter, “I kind of felt like they were like, ‘Oh, here we go again.’ We were like ‘Let’s go.’”

Some of the Giants were more emphatic.

“We got schooled,” Rodgers- Cromartie said in the visitors’ locker room. “I did not see relentless play, attitude. You name it, I did not see it. Everything we should have done, I felt we did not do it.”

A little later, Rodgers-Cromartie added: “It seems like you have two teams that came out there with their backs against the wall. You had a team that came out swinging harder than the other.

For once, that was enough to sustain the 49ers.

As this team sank toward the bottom of the NFL fish tank over the first nine weeks, a certain theory began to make the rounds: The Niners should continue to lose — in fact, do everything they could to ensure an 0-16 season, short of starting eight men on each side of the ball. The premise was that this team had no chance to make the playoffs anyway. They might as throw their games and end up with the ultimate booby prize: the first pick in next year’s draft.

It never made any sense. For one thing, this isn’t the NBA. The difference between the first pick in the NFL draft and, say, the fourth is not great. That’s true most years, and especially so (the scouts say) in 2018.

And any minor gain you might guarantee with the first pick would be outweighed by the failure you’d be introducing. People talk a lot about the “culture” of an NFL locker room. It’s real, but it isn’t just culture. It’s habit. It’s muscle memory and brain memory. Look at teams like the Seahawks, and year after year they seem to win the close games, even when they don’t play all that well. Then look at teams like the Chargers, who regularly find creative ways to turn victories into defeats.

You learn to win by winning, at least in the NFL. And this one triumph against a bad team may have planted a seed for the 49ers.

“It can be a catalyst to propel us farther,” Staley said. “Because they understand they don’t have to go out there and press. You can play within yourself, play within your system, trust yourself as a player, play confidently. … The NFL is so close as far as talent. It’s about the guys believing in themselves, trusting what they’re doing, trusting the work they’re putting in during the week, and putting it on the field on Sunday.”

Shanahan didn’t have the 49ers winning until Week 10. But he had them believing all along, and that counts for something more than a 1-9 record.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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