If there's a shred of optimism left among the San Francisco 49ers – players, coaches or administration – it must have taken a nasty hit on Sunday.
All their fluttering dreams about the playoffs were deflated one more time, although mathematical speaking they aren't dead yet. But how much more of this false hope can they endure?
If they're a playoff team, there's no way to justify their 34-16 loss to the Green Bay Packers (8-4) at Lambeau Field. But Jed York, their youthful team president, is still keeping the dream alive. Yes, he insisted, they can win the NFC West.
"Our guys can't give up," he said. "We have to keep moving forward."
The fact is, the 49ers (4-8) will have to run the table just to finish 8-8 and match their 2009 record. That will require beating three division opponents – the Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams and Arizona Cardinals – plus the San Diego Chargers.
Even if they do that, it's no guarantee they'll win the division (not losing sight of the fact that a 7-9 record might be good enough). The Seahawks and Rams both won and are now 6-6, so the 49ers -- two games out with four to play -- will need help even if they beat both of them.
No team wants to be in that position.
The 49ers had a 6-0 lead in the second quarter, thanks to newly signed kicker Jeff Reed, and trailed only 14-13 at halftime. But they failed to convert twice in goal-to-go opportunities (they settled for field goals each time) and surrendered big pass plays to Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.
Perhaps the most galling was a 61-yard pass and run to veteran Donald Driver on the opening drive of the third quarter. Driver broke at least five tackles on his way to the end zone – Reggie Smith, Dashon Goldson and Nate Clements had clean shots to tackle him but missed, and Driver dragged three 49ers into the end zone.
That touchdown made it 21-13, and after another Reed field goal, the Packers scored on their next series. The TD was set up when Rodgers hit Greg Jennings on a 48-yard pass play to put the ball at the 49ers 1-yard line. Rodgers, who threw for 298 yards and three touchdowns, then found Jennings again after rookie cornerback Phillip Adams missed a jam at the line of scrimmage, allowing Jennings to get to the end zone easily.
In the third quarter this season, the 49ers have been outscored 76-20.
"They shouldn't be able to throw downfield like that and score," coach Mike Singletary said. Then, invoking a familiar postgame phrase, he added, "So we've got to look at the film and see exactly what happened."
The 49ers had their moments. Vernon Davis caught a 66-yard scoring pass from Troy Smith at the end of the first half to make it a one-point game and finished with four receptions for 126 yard, but he also let a deep pass slip through his hands in the third quarter. On the next play, Ted Ginn Jr. caught a long toss from Smith but could only get one foot inbounds.
But aren't those the kinds of things that happen to losing teams? Not even the breaks go their way.