The 49ers play the division-leading Seattle Seahawks on Monday night. At 4-4, the Seahawks are the class of the NFC West, having won the division the past three seasons with a streak of four consecutive playoff appearances.
This is the deal for the 49ers: If they upset the Seahawks at Qwest Field, the 49ers will be just one game out of first place with seven games remaining. If the 49ers lose, their playoff hopes are finished. The 49ers would be four games behind the Seahawks, including the tiebreaker for having lost both head-to-head meetings.
"It has double meaning this week," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "We will never count ourselves out. We will maintain hope until the very end."
But that end could come much sooner than anyone connected with the 49ers could have ever imagined. The 49ers opened the season with two victories. Then, their woes on offense caught up to them.
Quarterback Alex Smith, who was playing efficiently through the first three games of the season, sustained a separated shoulder when Seahawks defensive tackle Rocky Bernard sacked him on the third play of the Seahawks' 23-3 victory on Sept. 30.
Including the rest of that contest, the 49ers lost three games with backup quarterback Trent Dilfer at the helm. And Smith has not been the same since returning to the starting lineup. In his first two games back, Smith has not thrown with much accuracy.
Since his return, he has completed 39 of 81 passes for 339 yards with one touchdown and three interceptions. His passer rating is 48.3 in those games.
Smith's problems were particularly unsettling in the 49ers' 20-16 loss to the Falcons last week, as he misfired on three passes that probably would have resulted in touchdowns.
"Those three plays stick out in my mind," Smith said. "Those are missed opportunities, game changers, the ones you'd like to have back. ... I look back and think what could have been. No excuses. You've got to hit those plays if you want to win games."
Smith said he watched the film a lot after getting back to see where he went wrong. Upon reviewing his mistakes, Smith said he rushed his throws against the Falcons' blitz.
"There's a time clock going off in your mind when you're out there," Smith said. "Then you watch the film and there's not a guy two yards from you, that's when you realize you could have taken more time. That's the most frustrating thing."
This has certainly been a season of frustration for the 49ers, who were not bashful about disclosing their playoff expectations to the media. Smith said there is no reason for the team to regret thinking it could be a legitimate playoff contender this season.
"Looking back at it, looking at our division, it was the truth," Smith said. "If you expect to get to those places, that's the attitude you have to have. You have to have those expectations, but whether you talk about them, maybe that's the point."
So, here the 49ers sit with seven games remaining and all they need is a victory against the Seahawks to be in the thick of the race.
"No matter what the record is, we're two games out of first place," Smith said.
Nolan describes the 49ers' situation as "unique."
"This is an important game, no question," Nolan said. "We've had a lot of important games, but it's all the more meaningful to go to Seattle, a division opponent."
The 49ers swept the Seahawks last season. Their 24-14 victory last December in Seattle, a game in which the 49ers scored 21 fourth-quarter points, was believed to have given the 49ers a lot of momentum coming into this season.
"We went up there last year and beat them," Nolan said. "I'm sure that's something coach (Mike) Holmgren has talked about in the offseason."
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It has been a tumultuous time for 49ers left tackle Jonas Jennings. Last week, one of the most respected players in franchise history blasted him on his radio show.
Jennings missed a game earlier this season for personal reasons. The team and Jennings mutually decided it was in the best interest of both parties to miss the Oct. 7 game against the Ravens. Neither Jennings nor the team has made the reasons for his absence public.
"I know the Jonas Jennings situation," Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott said on the radio show. "That guy right there, I mean, if I was the coach and he said some of the things I heard that he said I would've cut him. No, we can't have a guy not thinking that his teammates support him. We can't have that in the locker room."
Lott intimated that Jennings has said his teammates don't trust him. Jennings has never made public comments along those lines.
Jennings said he had no idea to what Lott was referring. When asked by reporters if he said anything about his teammates, Jennings answered, "You think that would be the first you all heard of that? Let's be serious. I don't know where he could possibly get that from, but God bless him. Just let him know I'm fine."
Three days after Lott's comments, the 49ers placed Jennings on injured reserve with a high ankle sprain that will require surgery. Jennings missed two games with the ankle injury.
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File this one under the heading: "Guarantees gone bad."
Outside linebacker Tully Banta-Cain, playing his first season with the 49ers after playing four years with the New England Patriots, made a guarantee before the 49ers played the Falcons.
"We're not coming back without a win," Banta-Cain said. "I know we need to win. Talk is cheap. ... You can guarantee a win every week. Whether it's going to happen or not is on you."
The 49ers lost to the Falcons, 20-16, and the team still returned to the San Francisco Bay Area.
Banta-Cain, by the way, had one tackle against the Falcons. He has been playing well below expectations after signing a three-year, $8.9 million contract with the team that included a $2.9 million signing bonus.
Expected to be a pass-rushing force from the edge in San Francisco's 3-4 defensive scheme after recording a career-high 5.5 sacks last season with New England, Banta-Cain has just 1.5 sacks to go along with 27 tackles at midseason.
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After the 49ers' latest rough defeat, coach Mike Nolan had to do some coaching to his youngest son before sending him off to school.
Nolan told him to be ready and have a thick skin when dealing with his classmates.
"I said, 'I know it'll be a tough day for you, too. Just do the right thing, handle it well,' " Nolan said. "As a matter of fact, when I was in the kitchen getting ready to go, he came back out (and said), 'I just wanted to say thanks Dad, I love you.' It was kind of neat. That's where it helps me."
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In their six-game losing streak, the 49ers have led for a total of 8:08. They have not held the lead in the second half of any game during that stretch.
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The 49ers lost two starting offensive linemen this week, and there's no guarantee either will play again for the 49ers.
Jennings was placed on injured reserve with a high-ankle sprain. Also, right guard Justin Smiley is out for the season after sustaining a torn labrum in his right shoulder.
Smiley is scheduled to be an unrestricted free agent in March. Although Smiley's agent, Pat Dye Jr., and the 49ers have been talking about a contract extension for more than a year, the sides have never gotten close to a new deal. The 49ers admittedly low-balled Smiley a year before understanding what the market was league-wide for guards.
Jennings, meanwhile, might have worn out his welcome with the 49ers after missing all or parts of 31 games in three seasons since signing a seven-year, $36 million contract with $12.1 million guaranteed.
Meanwhile, Adam Snyder has taken Jennings' place in the starting lineup and David Baas figures to start in Smiley's place the remainder of the season.
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--- OLB Roderick Green, whom the 49ers cut in training camp, was brought back to the team to take Jennings' spot on the 53-man roster. Green, a pass-rush specialist, recorded 4.5 sacks last season for the 49ers while playing half the season. The 49ers have struggled mightily with their pass rush this season.
--- FB Zak Keasey, whom the 49ers signed and cut each of the past three weeks, appears to be on the active roster for good. The 49ers are pleased with Keasey's play on special teams, where he has recorded 31 blocks in the return game.
--- WR Ashley Lelie went back to a reduced role last week with starter Darrell Jackson healthy enough to play. Lelie had five catches for 72 yards in the two previous games, but he did not have a pass thrown his way in a 20-16 loss to the Falcons.
--- P Andy Lee ranks third in the NFL with a 49.9 average, and he is tied for the league best with 43.4 net average.
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