Playoff still in Cards for 49ers in rematch

The idea seemed far-fetched after the 49ers played the Arizona Cardinals in the season opener on Sept. 10. But with just two games remaining in the season, the 49ers have a mathematical shot at earning a spot in the NFC playoffs, and it's not an unfathomable scenario that they could reach the postseason if they win their final two games.

Although the 49ers are 6-8 heading into Sunday's home rematch against the Cardinals, they can win the NFC West with two victories, coupled with two losses by division leader Seattle.

To qualify for the playoffs, the 49ers must win their remaining games against the Cardinals and Broncos, while the Seahawks (8-6) must lose their final two against the Chargers and Buccaneers. The 49ers also still have a chance to get in as a wild card, but a lot would have to happen elsewhere around the conference with other teams losing for that to happen.

The 49ers swept the Seahawks this season, giving them the edge in any head-to-head tie-breaker. If the Rams win their final two games, the 49ers would also claim a three-way tie-breaker because of a 3-1 record against those opponents. The 49ers enter Sunday's game with a 3-2 record in NFC West games and will finish the season with the best divisional record among the four NFC West teams with a victory.

"Certainly, at 6-8 we're not where we wanted to be starting the season, but the objective is to win the division," 49ers coach Mike Nolan. "It is within our grasp. We're not in complete control. That's kind of what we lost in those three losses that we had, but we are in the picture."

Nolan first started talking about the playoffs to his team after the 49ers pulled to 5-5 with a victory Nov. 19 over the Seahawks. But the 49ers quickly fell off the playoff radar with consecutive losses to the Rams, Saints and an upset defeat at home against the Packers.

"For a young football team it's important not only to make the playoffs, but to see how you respond and how you grow and mature in those situations," Nolan said. "That's what I think is important about it and that's where we stand right now."

Nolan said he had his eye on the big picture for broaching the subject that many coaches consider taboo. No matter how this season turns out, the 49ers believe they have positioned themselves to be legitimate playoff contenders next season and Nolan wanted them to get used to talking about it.

The 49ers already have won as many games through 14 games this year as in the previous two seasons combined. With seven picks in the first four rounds of the draft and a league-high $41.2 million in salary cap room heading into next season, the 49ers expect to make significant roster upgrades to go along with another year of maturity for their young nucleus.

"I'm mentioning it (playoffs) again for a simple reason," Nolan said. "At that time, we didn't know how we would handle it, but we knew, at some point, it would come up again, whether it was this year or next year or whenever."

Quarterback Alex Smith and running back Frank Gore are two reasons the 49ers believe they have a future in the playoffs. Smith, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft, put the 49ers on his shoulders for the first time in his career and led them to a victory in Seattle.

Smith keyed a 21-point fourth quarter with two touchdown passes and a touchdown run. Gore, meanwhile, rushed for 106 of his 144 yards in the fourth quarter.

Smith and Gore will carry much of the load Sunday against the Cardinals, who defeated the 49ers 34-27 when the clubs met in the season opener to inaugurate the new Cardinals Stadium in suburban Glendale. The 49ers committed two first-quarter fumbles that led to Cardinals touchdowns.

Even if the 49ers do not qualify for the playoffs, Gore said the main thing is for the club to finish strong.

"We just got to stay together and finish out these last two weeks strong and make a run to the playoffs and come into the offseason and build from there," said Gore, who leads the NFC with 1,491 yards rushing this season.

When asked if the 49ers could be a factor in the playoffs, Gore answered, "I think we can be all right. As long as we do what we do and play together, we'll be alright. We can surprise a lot of people."

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