SAN FRANCISCO // When Jed York, the San Francisco 49ers president, declared his team would still make the play-offs despite their 0-5 start, plenty of people questioned his sanity.
No NFL team has ever done it, though the San Diego Chargers bounced back after losing their first four games to finish 11-5 and win the division.
Suddenly, the play-offs are still a distinct possibility for San Francisco.
The 49ers (5-8) are just one game behind joint-leaders Seattle and St Louis in the NFC West ahead of tomorrow night's game at San Diego.
"We're one game out of first," Travis LaBoy, the linebacker, said. "All we can do is focus on the next game and try to keep knocking down the Ws. Hopefully we can get some help down the road from other teams losing and rewriting that play-off picture."
San Francisco staved off elimination with a commanding 40-21 win over the Seahawks on Sunday - and probably helped their coach Mike Singletary's job status, too.
If they somehow find a way to win out - including getting an away victory over the Rams on December 26 - and Seattle loses one of their remaining three fixtures, the 49ers would capture their first West title since 2002 and end a seven-year play-off drought.
The 49ers are not kidding themselves, though: this is quite a task to pull off. Singletary was as subdued as ever for his regular Monday news conference, insisting it was because he does not have much time to prepare for the Chargers.
Singletary did not have much time to enjoy Sunday's lopsided win.
"What we saw [on Sunday] was just a good indication of the growing pains of this team and getting to the place where you understand that you go out, you play the game, you do what you're coached to do," Singletary said.
"You don't press things and let the game come to you and just be true and honest to the game and things will work out on both sides of the ball."
On offence, the 49ers will stick with Alex Smith at quarterback. On Sunday, the 2005 No 1 overall draft pick returned to the starting line-up after a five-game absence - part of which he spent recovering from a separated shoulder on his non-throwing left arm.
He played one of his best games, with a career-high 130.9 quarterback rating.
Smith will become a free agent at the end of the season and almost certainly will go elsewhere in 2011.
"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't there. No question it's in the back of my head," Smith said. "I know that right now, at the end of the season, yes, the contract is up. But, with that said, I'm determined to stay in the moment, determined just to focus on this one game, not to take anything for granted."
Still, everything that went right on Sunday will mean little if the 49ers do not keep winning.
What has changed for the 49ers of late after that awful start?
"Just our chemistry, we're playing together," Vernon Davis, the tight end, said.
"We are starting to believe and we know how critical it is now when it's right there in front of us. We just have to go get it."
Davis and the 49ers were the preseason favourites to win the NFC West, but that quickly changed with the winless start.
At 8-8 last season, San Francisco ended a franchise-worst stretch of six consecutive losing seasons.
These 49ers could wind up 7-9 and in a three-way tie and still win the division.
Despite the record, that would be progress in the eyes of York and the rest of the San Francisco hierarchy.