Sudden implications: 'Hawks game gets serious

Suddenly, like a comet out of nowhere, the 49ers are facing a game that has serious implications Sunday when they host the defending NFC champion Seattle Seahawks at Monster Park. It was just a few weeks ago the 49ers were getting embarrassed on a weekly basis while playing like one of the NFL's worst teams. But after posting back-to-back victories, they're now on the verge of playoff contention.

It's been a major about-face for the 49ers in November after they were humiliated three times during a four-week span in October by losses of 41-0 at Kansas City, 48-19 at home to San Diego and 41-10 at Chicago.

But the 49ers (4-5) now find themselves one win from the .500 mark, and they appear to have gained some momentum heading into this week's game against the NFC West-leading Seahawks, who have swept them in each of the past three seasons.

"We make our guys aware of the situation that they have created for themselves," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We are two games out, we get to play Seattle, and we play them two games more.

"But at the same time, we don't lose sight of two weeks ago, and what got us to the two victories that just happened, because we need to continue to do those same things in order to maintain that. We don't jump ahead."

Defeating the Seahawks would accomplish two things for the 49ers: It would get the team to a point in the standings where they would be in the thick of the division race with six games remaining, and it would serve as a huge boost to the young squad's confidence. It would also put them in the thick of wild-card playoff contention in the NFC, where several teams are bunched together in the middle of the pack.

But isn't it a little odd for this team to start thinking about the playoffs?

"I don't think so," 49ers quarterback Alex Smith said. "We're in the gray right now. If we can win this weekend and get to 5-5, the division is not that far out of reach."

The 49ers have not defeated a team that currently has a winning record. Their four victories have come against teams with a combined 12-24 record. In the four losses to teams that are current playoff contenders - Chargers, Chiefs, Eagles and Bears - the 49ers were outscored 169 to 53, or an average defeat of 42-13.

Those numbers don't lie. Or do they?

Veteran defensive lineman Bryant Young said the turnaround, which has unquestionably taken shape on defense, was the result of the players taking more responsibility for their play. Young and Marques Douglas, two veterans, have asked coaches to remain with the unit on the field after practices each of the past two weeks.

"That's part of us players taking ownership of the defense," Young said. "It means something to us, and we want to correct it. It's about being more responsible to each other, the defense and the organization. We haven't given up. There are still a lot of games to play, and there's still hope."

Through their first seven games, there did not appear to be much hope for a defense that was on pace to surrender the most points in league history. But in the past two games the 49ers defeated the Vikings 9-3 and the Lions 19-13 to head into this week's game with both confidence and momentum.

"What they do behind the scenes, as far as extra meetings and extra work and staying late, is very important," 49ers defensive coordinator Billy Davis said. "The look in their eye is right. I've said, 'if you keep watching, we're going to turn the corner.' Two wins in a row is a sign, but we haven't turned it, yet."

Davis said it was the players' idea to stay on the practice field and correct their mistakes before going home for the evening.

"Instead of waiting until the next day to get in a meeting, they wanted to walk through the mistakes we made and do those plays over," Davis said.

Another obvious reason for the 49ers' improved play is the boost they have received from linebacker Brandon Moore and safety Keith Lewis, who were elevated into the lineup to replace struggling Jeff Ulbrich and Mike Adams

Moore has been the 49ers' best defensive player the past two games, and has taken over the team's lead in sacks with 5.5. Lewis was in the middle of several important plays, including his game-clinching interception in the closing minutes against the Lions.

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Nolan will get to wear a suit on the sideline Sunday for the first time. The NFL has given the second-year coach permission to wear a jacket and tie on the sideline for two games this season.

Nolan originally asked the NFL for permission to wear a suit on the sideline shortly after he was named 49ers coach in January 2005. The league denied his request, but then allowed him to meet with representatives from Reebok to talk about clothing alternatives.

Nolan has said that he prefers the sideline attire worn by coaches from previous generations, mostly notably his father, Dick Nolan, and former Cowboys coach Tom Landry.

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Nolan is grateful to have Bill Walsh's support. Walsh also has the support of Nolan, who has known about Walsh's condition for some time. Walsh, 74, disclosed last week that he is battling leukemia.

"Bill means an awful lot to me and he calls me weekly to offer support and other thoughts," Nolan said.

Nolan said Walsh's football influence has touched every coach and player in the NFL, either directly or indirectly.

"Everyone in the NFL is affected by Bill Walsh , whether you're a 49er or not," Nolan said. "He has probably meant more to the NFL than any other person. Everyone talks about the coaches who have (worked under him). I never worked with him, but I worked with Brian Billick, who worked under Bill and is a disciple.

"He touched all those coaches and he's touched all those players who have played under them."

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After being tagged as the 49ers' franchise player in back-to-back seasons, linebacker Julian Peterson became an unrestricted free agent last season. The 49ers did not put up much of an effort to retain his services.

Peterson ended up signing a seven-year, $54 million contract with the Seattle Seahawks that included $18.5 million guaranteed. Nolan, meanwhile, said he has no second thoughts about letting his best defensive player escape to a division opponent.

"(Do I have) regrets in the fashion of 'Man, we screwed up?' Absolutely not," Nolan said. "No one player is going to be bigger than the team. That's not only in the way someone acts, that's also in the commitment you make financially to someone."

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Defensive tackle Anthony Adams seems as if he's always picking up his helmet. It's a common occurrence to see his helmet get knocked off during the course of a play.

"I think it's because I sweat so much," Adams said. "It gets slippery and slides right off. I don't know. It's buckled up. I don't know, man. I don't have an answer for you. I've tried different stuff, like having bigger ear pads, but it doesn't work."

Part of the problem is that Adams stands 5-foot-11 and change, which is rather short for the defensive trenches and allows offensive linemen to engulf him, giving them an opportunity to twist at his helmet - inadvertently or otherwise - when they engage him at the line of scrimmage.

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The 49ers can move into position to make a playoff run with a victory Sunday, but that's a topic that Nolan would rather avoid at this point. He knows Sunday's game is important, but only if the 49ers can make it important.

"It all takes care of itself," Nolan said. "If we win the game, it all takes care of itself. That's always the case. It can become a reality but you have to make reality occur by focusing on the opponent and not getting ahead of yourself. Otherwise, it's just a dream."

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Future Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice will be honored at halftime of Sunday's game. Rice officially retired this summer after signing a ceremonial contract with the 49ers. Earlier in the season, this game did not appear to offer much in the way of competition.

Now, Rice said the game itself is a draw.

"I know those players with the 49ers are all fired up," he said. "They have a chance. Seattle went to the big dance last year, and this is a marquee team. The 49ers want to see how they stack up against a team like this. I think the pieces are starting to come together for them, so this will be a big test."

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The loss of speedy tight end Vernon Davis has affected the 49ers' passing game. Even though he caught only five passes for 37 yards through the first 2.5 games of the season, Davis' speed unquestionably causes some concerns for defenses.

With Davis running down the seam, safeties have to decide whether to stay with him or get into position to help on flanker Antonio Bryant. The 49ers capitalized early in the season on the indecision of safeties to hit on some big plays.

But Bryant has not had as much success as the season has gone on. He has just 29 receptions for 525 yards. Split end Arnaz Battle has 30 catches for 341 yards, and is turning into a solid possession and third-down receiver. Battle had six catches Sunday against the Lions, four of which were successful third downs.

Davis, who broke his right fibular in Week 3 against Philadelphia, returned to practice with the team Wednesday and is listed as questionable to play against the Seahawks.

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