49ers vs. Seahawks: Who'll play & who won't?

Sunday's NFC West clash between the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks will be decided between the white lines, but both teams enter game weekend unsure exactly which of their star players will be there and which won't. Injuries could play a significant factor in who makes it onto the field, but as far as who will play and who won't, it appears the balance is tilting in San Francisco's favor.

Running back Frank Gore, who ranks fifth among the NFL's rushing leaders, returned to practice with the 49ers at full strength Friday after being limited to just individual drills on Wednesday and Thursday.

After being restricted this week because of a mild concussion suffered in last week's game against the Lions, Gore looks ready for action, and coach Mike Nolan upgraded him from questionable to probable on San Francisco's injury report, making it all but certain Gore will be in the starting lineup for Sunday's pivotal divisional encounter at Monster Park.

In a late development, it also looks like the 49ers (4-5) may have rookie tight end Vernon Davis available for at least spot duty against the defending NFC champions. Davis - out since Week 3 due to a fractured right fibula - also went through team practice Friday after being limited to individual drills and seven-on-seven drills over the past two days.

Davis remained questionable on the injury report, but team insiders indicate he will suit up against the two-time defending NFC West champions and mix into the lineup behind Eric Johnson, who replaced Davis as San Francisco's starting tight end.

Nolan would not reveal his plans for Davis, but when asked Friday how likely it is he will play, Nolan responded, "He'll for sure be a game-time decision. Without a doubt."

There is even more uncertainty on the Seattle side, where the Seahawks (6-3) had 10 players listed on their injury report Friday, with seven of them questionable or worse to play against the 49ers.

Two of the questionables are Pro Bowl running back Shaun Alexander, the reigning NFL MVP, and Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck. Alexander has been out since the middle of September with a broken bone in his foot, and Hasselbeck has missed Seattle's last three games with a sprained knee ligament.

Both players practiced Friday for the third consecutive day. Alexander is expected to play Sunday, though the Seahawks are unsure how effective he'll be after his six-game layoff. Hasselbeck seemed to show improvement as practice progressed this week, but he still has some limitations in terms of movement and may be held out another week with backup Seneca Wallace starting his fourth consecutive game.

Like Nolan regarding Davis, Seattle coach Mike Holmgren took the standard approach of saying the status of Alexander and Hasselbeck will be a game-time decision. By NFL definition, players listed as questionable have a 50-50 chance of playing that week.

"They are all healing up in various stages and I believe they are all capable of playing, I just have to see how it is all going to sort itself it out and I will do that Sunday," Holmgren said Friday of Alexander and Hasselbeck.

Nolan, however, said the 49ers will be ready for both of the Seattle stars who led the Seahawks to a No. 2 NFL ranking in total offense last season.

"Because they are very close to being ready, we are preparing like they are ready," Nolan said. "That's how we are looking at it. I know the competitive nature of Hasselbeck. He wants to play. We'll see what Mike decides. It'll be his call. But, I would expect the back (Alexander) to play, too. If they don't, I'll be somewhat surprised."

Holmgren said he wants to see how well Hasselbeck plants on his back foot, steps forward and accelerates to avoid pressure. That type of movement has been difficult for Hasselbeck because his knee lacks stability.

"Some movement doesn't bother him at all and some does, which is understandable with the type of injury he had," Holmgren said. "So we just have to see where he is. His arm is live, he is throwing it hard. He's got good zip on the ball and his drops are fine, that part of it looks good to me."

Hasselbeck has been wearing a brace in practice. There's a chance Hasselbeck will serve as the No. 2 passer, giving Wallace one more game as the starter. The Seahawks are 2-1 with Wallace as their starter.

Wallace worked with the Seattle starters this week in practice. Hasselbeck worked with the scout team, which could be another indication the elusive Wallace will get the starting call.

When asked if it actually would be to the 49ers' advantage if Hasselbeck started, Nolan said, "You know, I'm not going to say what advantage we would have. That would be out of line. Obviously, both players are good players, and for different reasons. They do different things. Matt hasn't played in a few weeks, but the guy has played a lot of football. He went to the Super Bowl last year. They've got two capable guys. I think it'll come down to coach Holmgren's decision."

Unlike Nolan, Holmgren doesn't have a rule requiring the starter to work "X" amount of days with the first team before gaining clearance.

"You would like him to practice, but we certainly had games before where he didn't practice until Friday and then, he has to practice a little bit to play in the game," Holmgren said. "With the injury thing, we just have to play it by ear."

Alexander appears closer to full strength, practicing without limitations this week. The team limited his reps Thursday as a precaution, but all signs point to Alexander returning Sunday.

Seattle's ground game has improved over the past two weeks. Alexander's backup, Maurice Morris, had games of 124 and 138 yards rushing over that stretch. But the Seahawks miss Alexander, particularly in the red zone. The team has only three rushing touchdowns in nine games after finishing the 2005 regular season with 29. Alexander scored 28 of them.

The fourth metatarsal in Alexander's foot still has a tiny crack, but doctors think he's had enough time off.

"It's been long enough, and if he is not experiencing any pain, I suppose eventually there will be no little crack," Holmgren said. "However they judge healing off those pictures, the reality is they go to school for a long time to look at those things, and stuff we can't even see. It's come down to the fact that it's been, they feel, a sufficient amount of time not to put him at risk as long as he feels good. Your body should tell you if it's not working."

The status of other key Seattle players is even more uncertain. Center Robbie Tobeck (illness) and tackle Sean Locklear (ankle) each missed practice Friday for the third consecutive day and are questionable for Sunday's game. Fullback Josh Parry has been ruled out with a foot injury and linebacker D.D. Lewis is doubtful after missing the entire week of practice with a toe injury.

Wide receiver Bobby Engram has missed extensive time with an illness, and he remains questionable despite practicing with the team this week. Defensive tackle Rocky Bernard (foot) missed two days of practice this week but is listed as probable. Cornerback Kelly Herndon was held out the entire week of practice with a hamstring injury but also is listed as probable.

The Seahawks got a scare during Thursday's practice when rookie cornerback Kelly Jennings suffered a knee injury of unknown severity and left the field without returning. But Jennings was not added to the team's injury report Friday.

For the 49ers, Gore is eager to return after he was injured in the midst of a career-best performance last week at Detroit. Gore was injured when his head was slammed into the artificial turf at Ford Field after he'd caught a short pass late in the third quarter. He didn't play the remainder of the game.

Gore had his sights set on 200 yards rushing before leaving the game. He had a career-high 159 yards on 22 carries before he was injured, including a 61-yard touchdown burst on the game's opening possession.

Gore said he felt light-headed earlier this week after sustaining the first concussion of his football career, but by Thursday he said he was 100 percent.

The ability of the 49ers to run the ball with Gore is a key to the team's success against a Seattle defense that has played well against the run this season.

."Their defense is pretty good," Gore said of the Seahawks' 13th-ranked run defense. "They play together real good. They have a great group of linebackers. We got to keep punching at it and then Alex (Smith) can make some big plays in the passing game."

Gore ranks second in the NFC and fifth in the NFL with 831 yards rushing, and his 5.0 average ranks only behind Tiki Barber's 5.1 among the league's top 16 running backs. Gore also leads the 49ers with 33 receptions. His 1,092 yards from scrimmage are also fifth in the league.

"There's not a weak part of Frank's game," Smith said. "Watch him run between the tackles and see him break tackles and get those extra yards. Then, he's on the edge and breaking long plays and catching balls out of the backfield, and he blocks well. He works hard at every facet of the game. People around the country are starting to take notice."

And now it appears he'll be in the lineup for the Seahawks to take notice Sunday.

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