It's all about 2007 now for Niners

The process has been slow, but 49ers coach Mike Nolan believes his team is taking steps in the right direction. Even with a disappointing 26-20 loss to Arizona pulling the plug on San Francisco's playoff hopes, Nolan said it is all part of the process in building a team that he feels can be a legitimate playoff contender next season - a season on which the 49ers now will place all of their focus.

"I would say that a year ago, my vision was that we were a team that hoped to win," Nolan said. "We won four games. I think that this year we were a team that began to believe that they could win. We've won six games. I believe that the next step for us is to expect to win.

"We're not there yet."

But in Year 3 of the Nolan Plan next season, the 49ers have every intention of getting there. And it would be a setback in Nolan's rebuilding effort if they don't become a team that can end San Francisco's skein of four consecutive losing seasons, which matches the longest such run of futility in franchise history.

With Sunday's season finale at Denver looming, Nolan already is pointing toward 2007 and the things the 49ers need to do to take the next step after two losing seasons of incremental progress since he arrived to assume command in January of 2005.

"From my outlook, the offseason begins this week,'' Nolan said. "This is the beginning of the offseason and next season. It will be a defining game for many people. It begins this week. We are in the process of building. There's been a lot of progress made. This is an important time to continue to build.''

The 49ers most certainly won't be laying down against the Broncos, who can clinch an AFC wild-card berth with a victory at home on New Year's Eve day. In fact, Nolan indicated, several 49ers should be playing with an increased sense of urgency.

"This last game, I'm actually glad it means something to Denver because, hopefully, it will inspire our team,'' Nolan said. "I believe we've got good character on this team and that good character needs to show this week and in the game. We're building something. We need to show that character we've been talking about. This is the start to next year.''

The 49ers (6-9) had their chances this year. But they were unable to build on the momentum from an encouraging 24-14 victory Dec. 14 over the NFC West-leading Seahawks, which gave San Francisco a season sweep of the defending NFC champions.

For the reason the 49ers will not be alive in the playoff hunt entering their final game of the season, look no further than their two losses to the Cardinals this year.

"We've got one more game and after that we can reflect," quarterback Alex Smith said. "I think it's important to finish on a good note and to get focused. We've got to become more consistent, expect to win and demand it."

The 49ers were playing against Arizona without receiver Antonio Bryant, who began serving a four-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy. In addition to the final two games of this season, Bryant - ostensibly San Francisco's top down-field threat at wideout - will also be ineligible to participate in the first two regular-season games next season.

Although Nolan says Bryant remains a part of the team's plans, his future in San Francisco could be a subject of debate during the offseason.

The problem is, the 49ers have no legitimate receiving threat to replace him. Journeyman Bryan Gilmore replaced Bryant in the starting lineup against the Cardinals and did not manage a reception. He has been held without a catch for seven consecutive games.

Bryant signed a four-year, $13.9 million contract with $5.25 million guaranteed with the 49ers on March 14. And Nolan said he figures on Bryant being a valuable member of the organization upon his return to the team, which now won't take place until the third game of the 2007 season, though Bryant can practice with the team throughout the offseason and will be eligible to play in 2007 preseason games.

"It's normal to say that I'm disappointed we lost him for a couple of games," Nolan said. "But at the same time, like anything else we're doing right now, in about three years I'll look back and see what was the good and bad of it. I hope I'm still saying it was a good decision to bring him - that he's here and a long-time 49er.

"He's still a part of this football team, and hopefully he gets things in order and we rebound, because A.B. has a lot to offer us."

But like everything else regarding the 49ers now, that's an issue for next year. Entering last week's game against the Cardinals, San Francisco still was hoping next year could wait at least another week.

The 49ers needed some other pieces to fall into place in order to make it into the NFC playoffs, and some of those pieces began to fall nicely into place last Sunday. But the 49ers failed to take care of business against the Cardinals.

"The only scoreboard watching we were doing was our own scoreboard," 49ers linebacker Brandon Moore said.

If the 49ers had won their final two games of the season, they would have won the NFC West title if the Seahawks had also lost their final two games. The Seahawks lost to the Chargers 20-17 on Sunday, but the 49ers lost for the fourth time in five games after entering the playoff picture at 5-5 on Nov. 19 after an upset victory over Seattle.

The 49ers had renewed hope for the postseason after their uplifting victory on the road against the Seahawks, and several NFC playoff contenders lost earlier in the day last Sunday to also keep San Francisco in the wild-card picture. But the 49ers fell behind the Cardinals 20-3 in the second quarter and could never get back in the game.

"It was disappointing because we had opportunities," 49ers defensive lineman Bryant Young said. "We started off slow, gave up some plays in the beginning. But we hung in there and in the second half, it seemed like we were making a run. Then we shoot ourselves in the foot. That's been the case this year in our losses."

With their playoff dreams dashed, the 49ers have a chance to turn into a spoiler Sunday against the Broncos.

But this game will have added significance beyond that, and for several 49ers, it will be their final game in a San Francisco uniform.

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