Niners notebook: Vital stage of season awaits

Mike Nolan says it's OK for the 49ers to start dreaming about the playoffs, and he certainly doesn't mind if his players start talking about that possibility amongst themselves.

"I don't have a problem with that at all," Nolan said. "I would hope they do. But it's my job to keep them focused. When we get into the actual planning of what we're going to do, it's my job to see that they get focused. It doesn't hurt to dream, but when you get to work, reality sets in and you have to go through an opponent to get there."

The 49ers enter Sunday's game against the Rams with a 5-5 record, which places them just one game behind the Seahawks in the NFC West, as well as one game out of the wild-card picture. The 49ers are coming off an impressive 20-14 victory over the Seahawks.

Their game against the Rams, a team they've already beaten this season, could determine whether the 49ers are capable of making a serious bid at the playoffs in the final month of the season. The 49ers could be catching the Rams at the right time. The Rams have lost five consecutive games and are coming off their first shutout loss - 15-0 against the Panthers - since 1998.

Moreover, the 49ers have reason to feel confident when playing the Rams. They have won the last three meetings between the clubs, including a late-season victory a year ago in St. Louis.

"There's a little sense of that," said 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, who has been at the controls of the past two victories over the Rams. "This is still a road game, which is a big deal for us. This is probably the week for them to get geared up."

Perhaps, Nolan has not spoken the word "playoffs" to his team, but the implications have been clear since the first day he spoke to his team in the spring of 2005. Nolan stated his goal during that meeting to take control of the NFC West.

The 49ers finished 4-12 last season and were never a factor in the division. Now, they are in second place, entering Sunday's game against the third-place Rams.

"What we're talking about is the division and where we stack up in the division," Nolan said. "When you're talking about games you're going to play, it's a better visualization of an opponent instead of the playoff word.

"We can see St. Louis. They're in our division and they're one game behind us. We can see Seattle - they're one game ahead of us and we just played them. That gives the team a better visual."

So why doesn't Nolan speak to his team about the playoffs?

"I really don't talk about it right now because we haven't proven ourselves to be there," he said. "Right now, if we're going to talk about it, it's indirect."

The 49ers have shown remarkable improvement while rolling up a three-game win streak. The club's defense, which was on pace through seven games to surrender an NFL-record number of points, has been the catalyst.

The 49ers have given up just three touchdowns in its past three games. Meanwhile, running back Frank Gore has been carrying the offensive load. Gore has rushed for 1,043 yards in 10 games, and would have to average 88 yards a game in the final six games of the season to break Garrison Hearst's team mark of 1,570, which he set in 1998.

So at this stage in the season with a much-improved defense, a strong running attack and Smith making few mistakes at quarterback ... should the 49ers be a playoff team this season?

"I don't know if we should be, but we're working to be one," Nolan said.

He added, "Right now, I'm all for the dreaming and doing all that. But we have teams to play that are in our way. We've got things to accomplish that are real in order to make that happen."

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As efficiently as QB Alex Smith has played this season, coach Mike Nolan said he never wants to get into a situation where the 49ers are dependent on their quarterback to win games on his own. In fact, Nolan said he did not believe the 49ers would go in the tank if Trent Dilfer had to step in for Smith.

"There are some teams in our league if they lose that guy pulling the trigger, they're out -- they're out," Nolan said. "I don't ever want to say that about our football team and I hope I never do.

"I respect Alex and the job he does and the importance in his job, but right now if Alex got nicked tomorrow, I have every bit of confidence that Trent Dilfer would go in there and do a good job and help us win."

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Defensive end Roderick Green has gotten a little better in each game he has played for the 49ers after the club placed rookie Parys Haralson on injured reserve with a torn pectoral muscle.

Green beat Seahawks left tackle Walter Jones for a key sack in the 49ers' victory on Sunday. Nolan said he likes Green's ability to rush the passer, having worked with him while both men were with the Ravens.

"He got better and I'm hoping he gets even a little better," Nolan said. "Roderick has some good abilities. He just needs to be in the same place for a while. He's a young player. When he becomes consistent you don't know how far he can go. He looks the part, he can run and is athletic. He just needs to improve his consistency."

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The sight of a coach wearing a suit on the sideline might have looked a little out of place. But quarterback Alex Smith said there was nothing unusual about seeing Nolan wearing that ensemble. After all, Nolan often wears a business suit at the team's offices.

"We see him so often in a suit here all the time, so to see him on the playing field wasn't a big change," Smith said.

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The 49ers signed veteran linebacker Hannibal Navies, a veteran of seven NFL seasons, to the 53-man roster to take the place of linebacker T.J. Slaughter, who was played on injured reserve.

Navies (6-3, 252) spent four seasons with the Panthers (1999-2002), two seasons with the Packers (2003-2004) and one season with the Bengals (2005). He went to training camp with the Bengals this summer but was waived prior to the start of the regular season. Navies has played in 85 games with 46 starts and has recorded 201 total tackles, 3.5 sacks and one interception.

Slaughter was lost for the season with a torn tendon in his left ring finger. Slaughter saw some action in the 49ers' defensive sub packages. He was also among the 49ers' leaders on special teams with 12 tackles.

Linebackers Jay Foreman, Sedrick Hodge and Nate Wayne also auditioned for the vacant roster spot.

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--- CB Sammy Davis is in line to get his second start of the season, but coach Mike Nolan said he will have to win his way onto the field with a good week of practice. Davis entered the 49ers' game Sunday when Shawntae Spencer was injured and immediately surrendered a 41-yard TD pass. Spencer was held out of practice throughout the week.
--- CB Donald Strickland might suit up for his first game with the 49ers after being inactive two straight games. The 49ers consider Strickland's best position to be cornerback. He is competing for playing time this week against Sammy Davis and rookie Marcus Hudson in practice.
--- LB Brandon Moore is second on the team with 59 tackles, ranking only behind Derek Smith, who has 74 tackles. Moore leads the 49ers with four tackles for a loss and five sacks.
--- WR Arnaz Battle returned to practice Thursday, three days after having surgery to insert two small screws into his broken left hand. Battle is wearing a cast but will have it removed to play in Sunday's game against the Rams. Battle will wear a padded glove in the game.
--- FS Keith Lewis has made quite an impact in three games as the starter. He has two interceptions, a forced fumble, a fumble recovery and three passes broken up while making four tackles in each game. Lewis is also the team's top special teams tackler on the season with 14 stops.

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