Coach Jim Harbaugh strolled out of Candlestick Park's news conference room when he came upon quarterback Alex Smith.

"Good job, buddy," Harbaugh told Smith. "Congrats on a winning season. Now let's keep it going."

Sunday's 23-7 victory over the turnover-prone Arizona Cardinals assured the 49ers (9-1) of their first winning season since 2002.

This was no small feat considering the 49ers' dismal run before Harbaugh took over this season. However, thanks to a string of wins not seen since 1997 -- eight in a row -- the 49ers have bigger goals than just a nine-victory benchmark.

"We don't talk about the simple fact that we're a winning team now," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We kind of just go with the flow.

"We expect to win."

Next up is their most anticipated game of the season: a Thanksgiving Night visit to the Baltimore Ravens, who are coached by John Harbaugh, Jim's older brother. The Ravens' 7-3 record is tied for the AFC's best.

Overshadowed in the "Har-Bowl" hype is a matchup of elite defenses. The Patrick Willis-led 49ers are allowing the fewest points per game (14.5). The Ravens rank third (17.6 ppg) after their 31-24 home win over the Cincinnati Bengals.

The 49ers could clinch the NFC West title as early as next Sunday, so long as they beat the Ravens and then have the second-place Seattle Seahawks (4-6) lose on Sunday to the visiting Washington Redskins.


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"Winning season, nine wins -- so we're building momentum," said Smith, who completed 20 of a season-high 38 passes for 267 yards with one interception and no sacks.

By bottoming out with a 2-14 record in 2004, the 49ers earned the No. 1 overall draft pick and used it on Smith, who's found new life under Harbaugh.

Smith broke open Sunday's game by throwing third-quarter touchdown passes to Kyle Williams (8 yards) and Vernon Davis (18 yards) for a 23-0 lead. Sandwiched between those scores was a Donte Whitner interception, one of five turnovers by the Cardinals (3-7).

The 49ers' dominance was best reflected in the fact they had the ball for 44 minutes, 16 seconds. The Cardinals had possession for just 15:44.

Larry Fitzgerald ended the 49ers' shutout bid when he caught a 23-yard touchdown pass from third-string quarterback Richard Bartel with 8:38 remaining.

Earlier on that Cardinals scoring drive, 49ers safety Dashon Goldson exchanged punches with Cardinals wide receiver Early Doucet after a play in which Aldon Smith sacked Bartel. Doucet slapped Goldson's helmet as Goldson sat on the field, punches were thrown and Goldson was ejected.

Harbaugh said Goldson expressed remorse in the locker room after the game. Doucet admitted he "lost my cool" and expected the league to fine him and Goldson.

The 49ers never seemed in danger of losing anything Sunday. That said, they attempted field goals on all six of their first-half possessions. David Akers made three of those attempts, two were blocked and a 49-yard attempt sailed wide right.

"We really made that game more difficult than it had to be," Alex Smith said.

The 49ers finally scored a touchdown on their opening series after halftime, a 13-play, 84-yard march that culminated with Smith's touchdown pass to Williams, who had a career-high five receptions for 54 yards.

Although Smith scolded himself for overthrowing an open Michael Crabtree in the end zone, he did complete seven passes for 120 yards to Crabtree, who often proved elusive to rookie cornerback Patrick Peterson.

Willis contributed to two Cardinals turnovers on their first four series, including an interception on a tipped pass by Tarell Brown and later a forced fumble, both in Cardinals territory.

Willis said it felt "unbelievable" to play on a team with a winning record for the first time in his five seasons. But he didn't refer to the "winning season" as a rallying cry.

"We just talked about this being a new season and what's ahead of us," said Willis, who finished with a team-high seven tackles along with three pass defenses.

What's ahead next is the Har-Bowl.

"It's a big game because it's our next game, but there's a little bit more to it because they are brothers," Willis added. "And we'd love nothing more than to go out there and play great football to get a win for this organization, for this team and for our head coach."

For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.