In search of a streak

At times, the 49ers have played well enough to be considered one of the top teams in the NFC. But it has been those other times that have them lagging behind with a 4-5 record entering their game Monday night against the Steelers. The 49ers have not won two consecutive games this season, and they will shoot for their second win in a row with Tim Rattay at quarterback.

Rattay will make his second start of the season in place of Jeff Garcia, whose sprained left ankle is still too tender for him to play Monday night. Garcia will either be the backup or the No. 3 quarterback.

"I do know right now that Tim will be the starter," 49ers coach Dennis Erickson said. "Garcia might be the emergency guy. I just have to wait and see. I don't know. Like I said, if he can move around and do some things, I'd rather have him (as the No. 3 quarterback) than Cedrick Wilson."

Garcia does not appear to be close to 100 percent after sustaining a high left ankle sprain in the 49ers' overtime defeat Oct. 26 to the Cardinals. Garcia missed his first start in 62 games the following week against the Rams, as Rattay played well in the 30-10 victory.

After the bye week, Garcia said his ankle was feeling much better. But now that Erickson has reason to be confident in Rattay, he figures that Garcia on a gimpy ankle would not be as productive as a healthy Rattay.

"It's more health than anything else," Erickson said. "If he (Garcia) is healthy and he can move around and protect himself and be the Jeff Garcia that he is, mobility-wise, then he'll play. If he's not, then he's not going to play."

With Rattay at the controls, the 49ers will try to overcome some of their problem areas this season that have kept them from showing any consistency.

One of the areas in which the 49ers have struggled is in their red-zone efficiency. The 49ers have managed touchdowns on just 45.9 percent of their trips inside the opposition's 20-yard line.

Their seasons has been defined this by four losses that came by a combined total of eight points. In those games, the 49ers entered the red zone 14 times and scored just six touchdowns. Moreover, four times they failed to score any points at all.

The 49ers have little room for error for the remainder of the season, so their game against the Steelers certainly qualifies as a "must win."

Because the 49ers are 1-3 in games within the NFC West and just 4-4 within the NFC -- three of their final seven games are against AFC opponents -- it does not appear that they will be winning many playoff tiebreakers. It will likely take a 10-6 record for the 49ers to earn a playoff berth, so they will have to win their three remaining home games.

The 49ers have potential cold-weather games remaining at Green Bay, Baltimore, Cincinnati and Philadelphia. They will have to win three of those four games to keep their playoff hopes alive.

Because of the uncertainty concerning the weather in the final six weeks of the regular season, the 49ers like where they stand with their running game. The 49ers now readily admit that they've turned into a running game.

As the season has progressed, the 49ers are seeing more defenses place an eighth man in the box, daring the 49ers to throw the football. It is that balance that might determine just how far the 49ers are able to go this season.

"I have always thought that you need to run the football, and at the end of the year, you will be better," Erickson said. "I just think that the season takes a physical toll on you, and if you can run the football, it makes a difference. With the weather, if we get back there and can't throw it, obviously, it makes a difference."

The 49ers have shown remarkable balance through the first nine games of the season. They have attempted 289 passes and 288 running plays.

When Erickson was hired in February to replace fired coach Steve Mariucci, it was expected that the passing attack would benefit from his wide-open approach. But the 49ers are ranked a disappointing 16th in the league in passing, while their run game is No. 4.

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