SAN FRANCISCO -- From the first play of the first quarter, this was one of those games. You know. One of those games where the referees' whistle did not necessarily mean "stop." Instead, the whistle meant "get in one more elbow or shove, then stop, kind of, sort of."

Michael Crabtree loved it. Loved it to pieces.

Before Sunday, you might not have known this about the 49ers wide receiver who was drafted in the first round three years ago. But yes, Crabtree admitted as he left the locker room and strolled to the parking lot, he enjoys the grunt work.

Best example: In Sunday night's 27-19 victory, Crabtree really got into the fact that throughout the night, the Detroit Lions attempted to mess with his head by yapping and elbowing and clawing.

"It was football," said Crabtree, who turned 25 on Friday. "I've been playing since I was 4. You know, it's football. Let's go."

We have learned much about this 49ers team in just two short weeks. Almost all of it is good. Crabtree would be one example. When he was selected as a top pick three years ago, the perception was that Crabtree would become your classic game-breaking bomb-catcher of a wide receiver for the team. Instead, Crabtree has morphed into something just as valuable -- or even more valuable, especially in a hammer-tong game such as Sunday's.

Entering the game, Detroit receiver Calvin Johnson, known as "Megatron," was supposed to command the field. And Johnson didn't do badly, finishing with eight catches for 94 yards.


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But he didn't win. Crabtree did. He is now, unquestionably, the 49ers' best possession wide receiver. On third down, unless tight end Vernon Davis is wide open, Crabtree's hands are the hands that quarterback Alex Smith seeks to find. He had six receptions Sunday after his seven-catch game at Green Bay last week. And most of them involved man-to-man combat with defensive backs.

Five of his six catches on Sunday resulted in first downs.

"I'm just doing whatever it takes to win," Crabtree said. "Third down, second down, first down, whatever."

Third down would be the most important. Crabtree's performance in the fourth quarter Sunday, as the 49ers drove for the clinching touchdown, should be put on video and shown at clinics.

Three times during that 79-yard drive, Crabtree caught the ball in must-catch situations. On third and 7, he snared one along the right sideline. First down. On third and 14, he caught one over the middle and turned upfield for a 16-yard gain. First down. On third and 9, he worked the right sideline again and caught an 11-yard pass. First down.

"I really wasn't thinking about all that," Crabtree said. "Whatever Alex was trying to throw, I was trying to catch it."

So he doesn't mind being known as a possession receiver? "I would like to be known as an overall football player, not just in one category," Crabtree said. "I just like to make plays. I'm just trying to get better every day."

Yes, but in this era of the NFL, the diva receiver has almost become a stereotype. When you find one that has both hands of glue and the soul of a middleweight, it can be something special.

Jim Harbaugh, the 49ers coach who earlier had described quarterback Alex Smith as being "tougher than a two-dollar steak" because of the skinned-nose game he played Sunday, used similar verbiage to compliment Crabtree's enjoyment of physical play.

"I think he does enjoy it, I really do," Harbaugh said. "I think secretly, he hopes it comes down for that. He's a tough, tough guy that will suck it up in a heartbeat."

Make no mistake, off the field, Crabtree is still definitely not a lunchpail-type guy -- Crabtree showed at his postgame press session wearing sunglasses and tastefully stylish neck jewelry -- but between the sidelines he might as well be wearing overalls and a hard hat.

And whatever attitude he's bringing, it's working. In his first three seasons, in 42 regular-season games during which he was often hampered by sore and injured feet, he had accumulated just nine games with six or more catches. He now has 13 catches in two games this season.

As he walked to his car in the parking lot, however, Crabtree said he was thinking more about the one drop he had rather than the six he caught, which is something that Jerry Rice would often say. Rice was one of those hybrid guys who could be a possession receiver and a bomb catcher. Crabtree is hardly in the Rice category yet. But Crabtree is trending in the right direction. Not a bad thing. Not a bad thing at all.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com or 408-920-5092.