Playoffs still in picture as long as SF wins

The 49ers' playoff hopes were shaken when they lost their second consecutive game last week. But in the NFC, where two .500 teams would make the playoffs if they started today, San Francisco's hopes were not completely dashed.

The 49ers are currently ninth in the NFC playoff picture. Six teams from each conference make the playoffs, and the 49ers are within one game of the fifth playoff spot.

But there are also seven teams with 6-6 or 5-7 records that are vying for two spots behind the top four teams. At 5-7, the 49ers have a difficult path to the playoffs, for sure.

"It's not exactly where we want to be, having lost the last two games," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We are, to some degree, with four games to go, still in the hunt for a position for the playoffs."

Nolan said he touched on the subject to his team a week ago as the 49ers prepared to face the Saints. The strategy didn't seem to work, as San Francisco executed poorly in a 34-10 loss.

"When I talked about it last week with the team, it wasn't to create a distraction," Nolan said. "It's one more piece in the learning process of building a young football team and the expectations of what's at hand. You can't wait until you're right there to talk about it, but the problem with that is that sometimes it passes you by."

The 49ers can remain in the NFC playoff picture as long as they win games, beginning Sunday at home against the Green Bay Packers. If the 49ers win their final four games of the season -- no easy feat -- they have a good chance of earning a spot in the NFC's postseason derby.

Right now, that is the rallying cry for the team. After Sunday's game against the Packers, the 49ers face the Seahawks, Cardinals and Broncos.

The defense has played much better in recent weeks. Even in the 49ers' 34-10 loss to the Saints, their defense played well through most of the game. It wasn't until the fourth quarter when the 49ers had difficulty coping with Reggie Bush that the wheels came off.

The bigger issue for the 49ers the rest of the way might be on offense, where the club hopes quarterback Alex Smith will start taking advantage of all the attention running back Frank Gore is certain to attract.

Smith admits the Packers would be wise to follow the blueprint of the Saints, who devoted an extra defender or two in the box and challenged Smith to beat them.

"They'd be smart to do that," Smith said. "If you look at pure numbers, statistically, Frank's been a big portion of our production and he's had a lot of success."

Gore has rushed for 1,217 yards and five touchdowns this season, while accounting for another 346 yards on 46 receptions.

In the past six games, Smith has failed to throw for more than 200 yards. During that stretch he has thrown eight interceptions and just four touchdowns.

"We have to play to our formula as a football team in order to win," Nolan said. "That includes Alex Smith. He has to get first downs and move the ball. I'd like to see him continue to improve and get better as he's done at different times this season. He will not be our savior in the end."

Smith struggled Sunday against the Saints with his ability to make big plays down the field. Although the Saints' defense gave the 49ers some chances, Smith managed to connect on just one of seven passing attempts that traveled 20 yards or greater. His one completion was a 48-yard touchdown to Antonio Bryant. He was also intercepted twice on deep throws.

Gore ran the ball just 13 times last week, including twice in the second half, and managed just 40 yards. That placed more emphasis on Smith to win the game for the 49ers.

"He wasn't asked to do that, but when we were trying to take advantage of some of the things that they were doing defensively, we did not accomplish that," Nolan said.

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