The 15th week of the NFL season comes down to one simple statement of fact for the San Francisco 49ers: Win and cross their fingers or lose and prepare for a coaching and player overhaul.
The 49ers play the St. Louis Rams on Sunday in what amounts to a winner-take-all proposition. The rest of the league may be laughing at the prospect of a 5-9 team going to the playoffs, but this is serious business in the NFC West.
The Niners, Rams and Seattle Seahawks all have shots at the division title, and the next two weeks will decide which team advances. Here's what each must do:
49ers (5-9): Beat the Rams on Sunday and the Arizona Cardinals on Jan. 2 and hope the Seahawks lose one of their two remaining games.
Rams (6-8): Beat the 49ers and the Seahawks in their regular-season finale.
Seahawks (6-8): Beat the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday in Tampa and the Rams at home Jan 2.
The 49ers will face the Rams with Troy Smith at quarterback, a change that marks the third at the position this season by coach Mike Singletary. Despite the subterfuge about whether Troy or Alex Smith would start – and Singletary indicated both could play -- Rams coach Steve Spagnuolo said this week it doesn't make much difference.
"We don't get wrapped up in that, to be honest with you," Spagnuolo said.
It's possible the change could even hurt the Niners, who have been searching for a sense of continuity all season. It's been difficult for players, particularly receivers, to find a comfort level with their quarterbacks.
"I would say it's difficult, but you just have to take what they give you and keep going," said wide receiver Michael Crabtree. "I don't spend my time thinking about it. I'm just trying to stay positive about the whole situation."
Said tight end Vernon Davis: "A wide receiver and a quarterback have to be on the same page. They have to have good chemistry. You have to befriend your quarterback. You just have to be all those things.
"I believe in Troy Smith and Alex Smith. We have two good quarterbacks around us, so if we use both of them, I'm sure it won't that difficult or too much of a problem."
If it is, the 49ers could see their hopes of the playoffs go up in smoke Sunday.
NOTES: Defensive end Justin Smith will not be fined for making contact with a game official Dec. 12 at San Diego. Smith was ejected from the game, a 34-7 Niners loss. … TE Nate Byham (heel) and tackle Joe Staley (broken leg) have been ruled out for Sunday's game. RB Anthony Dixon (ankle) is questionable but said he expects to play. Listed as probable: CB Nate Clements (knee), WR Josh Morgan (shoulder), LB Takeo Spikes (hand), RB Brian Westbrook (not injury related), LB Patrick Willis (hand), RB DeShawn Wynn (ankle). … For the Rams, DE Chris Long (thigh) and T Jason Smith (ankle) are questionable, but Long is expected to play.