If Cards can almost win SB, why not 49ers?

After their push to the NFC title and impressive near-miss effort in the Super Bowl, the Arizona Cardinals have established themselves as a NFL power and the team to beat in the NFC West. But how far away are the 49ers from being what the Cards turned out to be this past season? To be sure, the Niners know what they need to do to beat the Cards and take away the division title from them in 2009.

Think back to early November, with the 49ers sitting at the Arizona 1-yard line before all hell breaks loose in a near-miss loss that should have been a season-turning victory. If the 49ers get that 1 yard for the win, it could have been them winning the NFC West, getting on a late-season roll and making it to the Super Bowl.

OK, that may be a bit far-fetched, but how far away are they really?

The 49ers certainly played like a team that could have been a playoff contender at the end of the season, when they were taking down contending teams such as the Buffalo Bills and New York Jets when both still had something to play for, blowing out St. Louis and then finding away to pull out a victory in the rematch on the road against the Rams despite playing horribly for three quarters, then beating a Washington team that was playing for a winning season instead of a .500 finish.

That was five wins in their final seven games, with the 49ers highly competitive in the two losses during that stretch, and almost pulling out victory on the road against a playoff team in one of them.

The Cardinals, by the way, stumbled to four losses in their final six games, a late-season fade that makes that galling loss by the 49ers on Nov. 10 – yes, the 49ers lost that game instead of Arizona actually winning it in the Cards' dramatic 29-24 victory – all the more galling.

It would have been a title battle and playoff chase to the wire for the 49ers, who finished 7-9, and the Cardinals, who finished 9-7, had the Niners not turned into a keystone cops routine in the final minute of that Monday night loss in the Arizona desert.

The 49ers should have won that game, and they could have won the season opener against Arizona, since they out-gained the Cards in that game but were doomed by five costly turnovers.

So they can definitely play with the Cardinals, and it already looks like it will be a San Francisco-Arizona battle for the 2009 NFC West title, if the momentum of two teams on the rise continues into the upcoming season.

So if the Cards can get hot and roll through the NFC playoffs after playing sub-par football once they took control of their division in early November, how far are the 49ers from doing the same kind of damage this season, now that they seem to have their act together under new head coach Mike Singletary, who has instilled a whole new feeling in the 49ers organization, and now appears to have the necessary ammunition to be a legitimate contender in 2009?

Think about it. If the 49ers had beaten the Cardinals that Monday night, then finished a last-minute drive against Miami in the end zone instead of trying to get there in the last minute, San Francisco could have transformed from a 2-6 team at midseason into a unit hosting a first-round playoff game at home. And as Singletary will tell you, once you get into the playoffs, anything can happen.

Just asked the Cardinals, who whupped the Atlanta Falcons at home, went on the road to slap around the Carolina Panthers, then – thanks to a semifinal loss by the defending Super Bowl champion Giants – got to host the NFC championship game, where they survived the Philadelphia Eagles.

Then the Cardinals went and did themselves proud in Super Bowl XLIII, generally out-playing and out-gaining the Pittsburgh Steelers and taking a lead into the final minutes only to fall in a great finish during which the Steelers had to make great plays to beat them.
Could that have been the 49ers?

To be sure, Singletary isn't deceiving himself and certainly isn't ready to suggest that the 49ers were just a couple of last-minute snafus against the Cardinals and Dolphins away from even being a playoff team.

When SFI asked Singletary at the end of the season if he thought the 49ers really were that close to being a playoff team – and thus, a Super Bowl contender – he didn't even entertain the thought.

"No, I won't say that," Singletary responded without hesitation.

And why won't he say that?

"I won't say that because I'm a realist," Singletary said. "We're a playoff team when we're in the playoffs. A playoff team is not a team that is almost in the playoffs in my mind."

Singletary continued: "We're not there. I think that we have a lot of work to do to get there. I think that some teams may have overlooked us, they won't next year. So I think we have a lot of work to do and I would hate to say … I think it would be a very sad thing for me to say that we're basically a playoff team because if that's true then I think that we're all in trouble. We're not there, but we will be."

Which is probably just about what the Cardinals were saying about a year ago. Which is precisely the point for the 2009 49ers.

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