49ers serve notice to rest of NFL: It's time to take them seriously

LOS ANGELES -- The time has come.

If you questioned the San Francisco 49ers' legitimacy before Sunday's 20-7 win against the Los Angeles Rams, it's time to discard those thoughts and replace them with genuine wonder about what this season could bring. Yes, the time has come for the 49ers and their fans to dream big.

Through each of the team's first five games, their detractors have found reasons to doubt the 49ers. The skeptics have pointed to their opponents as a reason to question them. And yet, here they are at 5-0 for the first time since 1990, one of just two remaining undefeated teams -- along with the New England Patriots -- and the only unbeaten remaining in the NFC.

But the mark of a good team, one that can contend for the postseason and even make noise in it, is that it can find a way to win under any circumstance.

As legendary rapper/poet Tupac Shakur once so eloquently asked: How do you want it? Name a style of game and the Niners have probably won it.

A dominant defensive performance with two pick-sixes? Yep. A blowout in which the game was over in the first quarter? Check. Turn it over five times and come through with enough big plays to win late? Sure, why not. An unstoppable run game under the lights of Monday Night Football? That, too.

On Sunday, a depleted 49ers team scratched and clawed its way to victory in a game that had the distinct feel of a throwback NFC West slugfest.

Leading the way was a defense that again stepped up and punished the Rams at every turn. The Rams finished with just 165 yards on 3.3 yards per play. The 49ers harassed Los Angeles quarterback Jared Goff into a career-low 78 passing yards. Goff completed nothing down the field and the Rams were a combined 0-for-13 on third and fourth down.

What's more, this team has the ability to be better. Much better. In the next month to six weeks, tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey, fullback Kyle Juszczyk and cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon will return from injury. Receiver Trent Taylor might not be far behind.

The schedule is favorable for the rest of the month, too. The next three games are all winnable, with a trip next week to play Washington followed by a home game against Carolina and a trip to Arizona.

So go ahead, 49ers fans, let your mind wander just a little bit to what could be possible. It's time.

QB breakdown: Without those aforementioned starters and with the run game struggling to get going, the Niners needed a little more from quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo on Sunday. For the most part, Garoppolo delivered.

He finished 24-of-33 for 243 yards with a rushing touchdown that provided the winning points. He did throw a bad interception in the red zone but was otherwise solid.

As evidenced by the interception, Garoppolo still has a habit of making one or two bad decisions or throws per game, but he's also the guy who just led the Niners to the second five-game winning streak of his short tenure as the team's starting quarterback. Ultimately, that's what matters most.

Troubling trend: After an offseason stare-down, the 49ers gave kicker Robbie Gould a four-year, $19 million deal, with the first two years fully guaranteed. That contract was based on Gould's outstanding first two seasons in San Francisco. Things haven't gone nearly as well in his third season.

Gould missed a 55-yard field goal attempt Sunday, which in itself isn't that big of a deal. But it was the continuation of a disturbing run in which Gould has struggled to get on track. The miss was Gould's sixth already this season, matching the most field goals he has missed in a season.

It hasn't helped that the Niners have played musical long-snappers to this point -- though the pending return of Kyle Nelson (who can come back from suspension after next week's game against the Washington Redskins) should help settle things. Still, the Niners are going to find themselves in close, important games and need Gould in top form to finish them.

Pivotal play: After the Niners' defense got a much-needed stop following Garoppolo's interception, the teams traded punts before the Rams drove to San Francisco's 1 with about four minutes left in the first half and the game tied 7-7.

With two chances for Los Angeles to break through and take the lead, the 49ers' defense did what it's done so often this season: It stepped up and stuffed Rams running back Malcolm Brown twice. Make no mistake, San Francisco's defensive front can rush the passer as well as any unit in the league. It showed Sunday it can also get the dirty work done when it matters most.

Instead of falling behind, the Niners kept the score tied, then took over in the second half.

Eye-popping NextGen Stat: Midway through the third quarter, running back Tevin Coleman came wide open in the end zone for what should have been an easy touchdown. Instead, Coleman couldn't haul it in and the 49ers had to settle for a field goal. According to NFL NextGen Stats, Coleman had 14.1 yards of separation on the play. That's the second-largest target separation on an incompletion this season.

In the end, it didn't hurt the Niners. But in the moment, it looked like a potentially big missed opportunity.