Niners taking 2006 down to the finish

Who are these guys? That's a question you've had to ask about the 49ers over and over again this season, and on just about a weekly basis over the last couple of roller-coaster, seesaw-swaying months. Those looking for answers usually could find one. It just never was going to be the same as the time before. Playoff 49ers? Well, maybe. And then, no way. And then, after Thursday, hey wait a second.

You just don't really know and can't really tell with these guys.

As it turns out, that's the beauty of this 2006 season. We won't really know the definitive answer on these 49ers until they come off the gridiron at INVESCO Field in Denver on New Year's Eve. The 49ers - improbably, amazingly, spectacularly - have taken their season down to the very end.

And that, folks, is progress to the highest degree.

After a momentum-building three-game winning streak followed by a dream-deflating three-game losing streak followed by a spine-tingling, coming-of-age performance in the evening sogginess of Seattle, the 49ers aren't just playing out the string at the end of December this time around.

When they make that trip to Denver for their season finale, they might even be playing for a trip to the postseason. Ultimately, that's unlikely to happen, and the 49ers would need a whole lot of help from others to make it a reality.

But no matter what happens at the finish, the 49ers can make a case that they're the best team in the NFC West, even if the records and standings don't say so. They made that statement in another signature moment of a season that has had several, taking out the defending NFC champions on their home field earlier this week with a fourth-quarter knockout punch that was the best 15 minutes of football ever seen by a Mike Nolan-coached team.

As they keep saying in San Francisco, you had to see it to believe it. Maybe you didn't, because the game was in the Pacific time zone on a Thursday night and held hostage by the NFL Network, which was broadcasting the game to a national audience - at least, the kind of national audience that had the money to pay to watch it, or subscribed to a cable service that actually carried it.

But for those who got to see Frank Gore get down and Alex Smith grow up during a 21-point fourth-quarter splurge that prevented the Seahawks from clinching their third consecutive NFC West title while keeping the door swinging open for the 49ers to possibly take it instead, it was well worth the effort involved to be part of the viewing audience.

It would take too long here to exult about how Gore rumbled through the beaten Seattle defense for 88 of his 106 fourth-quarter rushing yards in the final five minutes, how Smith made the play of his young NFL life to provide a momentous touchdown, how the resilient San Francisco defense made a fourth-and-1 stop that was a turning point, how Smith added the coup de grace with the finest bootleg fake turned into touchdown run you'll ever see anytime, anywhere.

But you get the picture, even if you didn't get the picture.

Who are these guys?

"I like to think this is who we are," Nolan said after the 49ers turned a 7-3 fourth-quarter deficit into a 24-14 beatdown of Seattle to sweep the season series and give San Francisco the best divisional record among NFC West teams as the Niners head into the final two weeks of their season.

Well, of course. If this is who the 49ers are - and maybe they are already - then the future can't wait, because this team is on the doorstep of arrival.

It makes the 49ers and their followers rue the missed opportunity in St. Louis, when a convincing victory turned into a last-second loss, and the letdown at home against Green Bay, when the 49ers experienced by far their most disappointing outcome of the season.

But even if the season ended right then, right there on the drenched FieldTurf in Seattle, it would have to be considered a success as San Francisco matched its victory total of the 2004-2005 seasons combined, and showed that the 49ers - as inconsistent and unpredictable as they are - have what it takes to assemble the kind of magic that blew Seattle off its waterlogged field when the Seahawks were the team with everything to play for.

Did I say magic? Gore had a better word.

"We're scary," he said.

The humble, soft-spoken second-year running back - who is absolutely livening up now as he makes a late dash toward a possible NFL rushing title - was talking about he and Smith, how this is only their second season together, how the best is positively yet to come as the duo becomes a force to be reckoned with around the NFL.

And it's the truth. Gore, as illustrated elsewhere in this issue, is a gem. And Smith is a diamond in the rough, now starting to sparkle as he smoothens those prickly edges.

There were some who were calling out Smith earlier this month, after he strung together some mediocre-to-poor efforts when the 49ers needed him most, a frustrating departure from his surprisingly fine play earlier in the season. But the Niners certainly weren't among them. They stuck by their kid quarterback, and he showed everybody why in Seattle.

"When the San Francisco 49ers win the Super Bowl again, Alex Smith is going to be the quarterback. It isn't going to be me, and it's not going to be somebody else," said Smith's backup, Trent Dilfer, a Super Bowl-winning quarterback himself whom some wanted to see replace Smith to break up San Francisco's December losing streak.

"All of what we're doing right now is for that," Dilfer continued. "Every snap he takes, every experience he has, everything he has to overcome, is a building block in the overall success of the franchise. With Alex, the sky is the limit."

As they reach the 2006 finish line, it's looking that way for the 49ers, too.

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