December is quarter that matters for 49ers

It doesn't really matter how the 49ers arrived at the fourth quarter of their season with an 8-4 record. It's what they do now that they're here that counts. Despite everything that hasn't gone exactly according to plan so far in 2002, the Niners still have time to position themselves for success in January by getting on a late roll. That might be a lot to ask from this banged-up team, but finishing strong in December is vital if the Niners expect their season to go much farther beyond that.

That's the way it is in the NFL: You want to be playing your best football at the end of the season. The Niners have played at their best in perhaps two games this season, which either makes you think they're a team that just can't get it together or that their best is still ahead and finally will surface steadily when it counts.


Actually, with all the significant injuries the Niners have, they probably aren't saving anything for December. They've needed to give their all just to get where they are – and stay where they are.


That's first place in the NFC West, a position that would at the very least guarantee them a playoff opener at home. The Niners need to hold onto that spot the rest of the way, but – with a three-game lead in their division with four to play – they obviously are shooting higher.


A top-two playoff seeding in the NFC still is within reach, but it will take a strong December fourth-quarter run to attain it and not the kind of inconsistency and defensive breakdowns the Niners displayed during their 2-2 November.


"Obviously, it's an important quarter for us, as far as hitting some sort of stride, hopefully building on some of the things we've been able to attain this year, as far as an 8-4 record," Niners quarterback Jeff Garcia said Wednesday. "Hopefully, we just continue to build on that and be able to hit the playoffs on a high mark and really start to roll in certain ways, really start to play well as far as the team goes."


Notice that Garcia twice used the word "hopefully." The Niners have to hope, because they surely don't know for sure if those things will happen. It's hard to have confidence when you're missing so many key performers on defense and you never know what you're going to get from your offense in the crucial fourth period of games.


The remaining schedule features only one team with a winning record, and the Niners play that game at home. But the other three games each are on the road, and that includes two places – Dallas and St. Louis – where the Niners suffered two of their four losses last season.


The Niners can clinch the NFC West as early as this week, and they will win the division by splitting their remaining four games no matter what the second-place Rams do. And that will be San Francisco's first concern the rest of the way.


"Obviously, you have to put together a good enough record to get to the playoffs," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "That's the first thing. You have to get there somehow. You'd like to peak at the end. You'd like to be your healthiest. The chances of peaking at the end and playing your best football is when you're more whole as a team. Whether we get to that or not remains to be seen with some of these guys coming back and helping us."


If the Niners are peaking entering the playoffs, it surely will mean they corrected some of their problems – and got healthier – during the most crucial month of the season.


"There's some parts of our game that are very good, and there's some parts that are deficient," Mariucci said. "And as we go through the month of December, we have to find a way to improve those things that we need to be more playoff-ready. We have to try to healthy up a little bit, get some of our starters back. And we've got to win this week. We're not focused on all of that. We're trying to win this week, and then we'll try and figure out those other things."

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