Niners notebook: Time to start a win streak

The challenge facing the 49ers changed this week. No longer are they just trying to win a game. Now, San Francisco is hoping to actually build on a promising performance against the Arizona Cardinals. Instead of carrying the burden of a long losing skid, the 49ers now have their sights on establishing a win streak.

The 49ers snapped their eight-game losing streak with a 37-31 overtime victory against the Cardinals. Now, they travel to Charlotte, N.C., to face the Carolina Panthers in a game featuring two teams that began the season with high hopes.

Niners coach Mike Nolan promised his club would not feel a sense of relief and lack urgency after finally winning a game.

"There will not be any degree of 'got-the-monkey-off-my-back' by our football team, I'll say that," he said. "I think, if anything else, it's success breeding confidence and hopefully more success, that would be it."

Quarterback Trent Dilfer is expected to start his third game in a row, as third-year quarterback Alex Smith was scheduled to sit out two games before getting his right shoulder and forearm re-examined.

Smith has not been the same since he sustained a separated right shoulder Sept. 30. He missed two starts, then returned to play too early. While he was trying to build up his arm strength, he may have overworked his forearm.

When the conditions were not improving, Smith decided to travel to Alabama to seek a second opinion from noted orthopedist Dr. James Andrews. He was advised to sit out two games and then the condition would be re-evaluated.

Smith said the forearm strain is expected to improve on its own. However, Smith said there was a possibility he would require surgery to fix the grade-III separation of his throwing shoulder.

Dilfer played well last week, as he appears to be finding a rhythm with his receivers. Dilfer completed 25 of 39 passes for 256 yards with two touchdowns and one interception against the Cardinals.

Nolan said Dilfer's past two games were the best-quarterbacked games he has seen from his team while head coach. During that span, Smith started 30 games.

"He (Dilfer) did better than he did last week," Nolan said. "He had an outstanding game. Since he's been playing, he seems to get better and better each week."

The 49ers find themselves back in a position they've experienced in the past. With a 3-8 record, the 49ers would have to win five consecutive games just to get to the .500 mark. Therefore, a playoff appearance is not a strong possibility. The 49ers, again, find themselves playing for next season.

Still, Nolan has convinced his team that there is plenty to play for in the final five games of 2007.

"It's our objective now to start a streak, and a win streak," Nolan said. "We've got a lot to play for. We still do. We have an awful lot to play for. We've got five weeks, five games. That can add up to a lot of good football.

"I think (last week) was a good example of the capabilities of our football team. Arizona is a good team. They were a game out (of first place) prior to the game, and had a lot to play for. They didn't come into the game flat, I know that."

The 49ers put together their best point-scoring performance in the three seasons since Nolan has been head coach. The 49ers rolled up 37 points in the overtime victory over the Cardinals.

The offense, which has struggled all season, had 374 yards of total offense and 21 first downs.

But that does not mean that the 49ers' problems have been solved. Now, there's this little thing called consistency.

"I don't know how clear things are, but it's certainly something you want to build on, no question," Nolan said. "Every week you have a new opponent. We'll have a new challenge this week with Carolina. But, with success comes confidence, and I would hope those two things continue to feed off one another."

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Assistant head coach Mike Singletary knows a thing or two about linebackers. That's why his words meant a lot when he leaned across the aisle to share his thoughts with Nolan. The team was returning from its game in Arizona, and Singletary wanted to say something about rookie linebacker Patrick Willis.

"Patrick's special," said Singletary, a Hall of Fame linebacker.

Willis was credited with 18 tackles, including a hustle play when he tracked down receiver Sean Morey 62 yards down the field for a game-saving stop in overtime.

"It's impressive, but I'm not surprised because he has outstanding speed and outstanding desire," Nolan said. "Chasing somebody down not only has to do with your speed, it has to do with your want. And he is not short on either one of those."

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It has been a rough season for Nolan, whose father passed away Nov. 11. Nolan experienced the worst in his personal life, along with an eight-game losing streak.

Nolan grew up experiencing the good and bad as the son of an NFL coach. His father coached the 49ers to their first three NFC West division titles in franchise history. But he also remembers the bad days as a ball boy on the sideline. Dick Nolan was fired after the 49ers went 5-9 in 1975, the last of three consecutive losing seasons.

His father played on a national championship team at Maryland. The New York Giants won the NFL championship his rookie season. He also enjoyed a lot of success as a Dallas Cowboys assistant coach under Tom Landry.

"I'd say because that was his first time (losing), it was real hard on him and it was hard on the family," Mike Nolan said. "Not that this isn't (hard), but I've seen that. I saw it as a kid and then coming into the NFL and coaching. I was at the Redskins. I had a difficult year in 1999.

"I've had more (adverse) experience in my coaching career than my father did. I draw on that at different times. There are down times and there are up times. And I keep that in perspective."

At his father's funeral, Nolan said his mother told him he has to "hang in there."

"I thought she was talking about dad," Mike Nolan said. "She said, 'No, your season's not going very well.' I said, 'Mom, through experiences, I'm built for this.'"

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The 49ers were down two cornerbacks in last week's game after injuries to Shawntae Spencer and Marcus Hudson. Reserve cornerback Donald Strickland entered the game and played a major role in the team's victory over the Arizona Cardinals when he broke up a pass to Bryant Johnson in the end zone to force a field goal and overtime.

Rookie Tarell Brown is expected to be active for this week's game. He has been inactive for seven games this season. Spencer and Hudson are both expected to miss the game Sunday against the Carolina Panthers.

In order to help the team prepare for the game, the 49ers signed cornerback Markus Curry to the practice squad. The 49ers released tight end Zac Alcorn to make room for Curry.

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