SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- The San Francisco 49ers have improved in just about every facet of the offense this season. But there is one area where they didn't really need to get much better.
The 49ers are protecting the football better than anybody in the NFL, and their turnover-free play is reaching historic proportions.
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Leading the way is quarterback Alex Smith, who hasn't thrown an interception in a franchise-record 185 consecutive regular-season passes. Smith threw just five picks last season -- the fewest in the league for a regular starter -- as San Francisco committed an NFL-low 10 turnovers.
"In the history of the NFL, the strongest correlation to winning and losing is the turnover ratio," Smith said. "The turnover battle is the No. 1."
The 49ers know all about it. They finished 13-3 last season and made their first trip to the playoffs since 2002 after leading the NFL with a plus-28 turnover differential, one of the league's best since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger.
The previous seven seasons, all of which they finished without a winning record, San Francisco committed 221 turnovers and had a cumulative turnover differential of minus-57.
"Ball security relates to your team being successful, and we're very serious about that," Harbaugh said.
Harbaugh credits running backs coach Tom Rathman, who played fullback for the 49ers from 1986-1993, with "doing as good a job as any of us have ever seen done," in preparing his unit to protect the football.
Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press