SANTA CLARA -- Through one-half of the regular season games last year, the 49ers proudly held a 7-1 record and a commanding lead over their lesser NFC West opponents, who authored a combined five total wins through the ninth week in 2011.
This year, things are different. The 49ers can still be proud of the 6-2 mark they posted in the clubhouse at the turn, but the rest of the division is markedly improved. San Francisco has a 1.5-game lead over the second-place Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals are not far behind.
Though their stranglehold on the division isn't as strong as a year prior, quarterback Alex Smith recently told PFT Live that he believes this year's team is "way better" than last years. Do his teammates feel the same?
"This team is better. We're in the second year of the same playbook, you know. We have weapons. Everything is better."
"It's different every year, man. I think we're better as a team this year. I just think as far as the games we lost, we had some missed assignments so that played a part in us going 6-2. Every year is different, we just lost more games at this point than we did last year.
"I do (think this team is better). I just think everybody has gotten acclimated and used to each other. We've had a year under our belt to get used to playing under this system. So everything is clicking a lot better."
"Different, man. Different year, different team."
"I feel like we're the same team. We just know the playbook a little more. And we're starting to gel. Everybody probably feels a little bit better together this year, just cause we gelled and we know what we can do. This team (would win head-to-head)."
The numbers don't lie. The 49ers offense is on pace for more first downs, yards and touchdowns. Meanwhile their defense has opponents on track to fare worse than last season in those key categories, impressive considering the historic defense the 49ers played a year ago.
RELATED: 49ers stats
Dan Kilgore suffered a concussion on the opening kickoff of the 49ers' Monday night win over the Cardinals on Oct. 26.
Ten days later at practice Tuesday, Kilgore was still sporting the black no-contact jersey.
"We're just taking it slow," Kilgore said. "Not exactly sure what the rules are, but with us taking last week off, we did it just in case."
He sounded as if he was plenty ready for contact.
"I feel good. I'm ready to go."
Jewel Hampton participated in his first 49ers practice Tuesday, wearing No. 33.
RELATED: Hampton returns to practice
The undrafted rookie underwent offseason foot surgery after he suffered an injury midway through his final season with Southern Illinois. He played through the pain en route to 1,121 yards, 17 touchdowns and a three-year deal with the 49ers.
Hampton will have a tough time working his way into San Francisco's backfield that is already crowded enough to keep Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James inactive. But Hampton wasn't shy about his goals.
"I'm all about being on the active roster," Hampton said. "There's no doubt about that. I feel like I can contribute to the team."
What does he see as his strengths?
"Be physical and stay in attack mode at all time."
If the 49ers do not activate him after a three-week window, beginning Tuesday, he would finish the season on the Non-Football Injury list.
Joe Staley is sporting a mustache. But it's no ordinary mustache, it's a "Movember" mustache.
"Movember," if you didn't already know, is an American movement in which males sport mustaches in an effort to raise awareness for men's health issues.
From the official website:
"During November each year, Movember is responsible for the sprouting of moustaches on thousands of mens faces, in the US and around the world. With their Mo's, these men raise vital awareness and funds for men's health issues, specifically prostate and testicular cancer initiatives."Staley announced his participation with a picture on Nov. 1:
Hello. Mustache time. creepstreet instagr.ampRfyl9kIQWU Joe Staley (@jstaley74) November 1, 2012
He's working on recruiting a few more 49ers for the movement. Brandon Jacbos was hesitant, but Leonard Davis seems to have taken the bait:
Can't believe it,...but I'm supporting Movember. twitter.comTHELEONARDDAVI Leonard Davis (@THELEONARDDAVIS) November 2, 2012