49ers facing must win vs. Titans?

The 49ers have lost three in a row and four of their last five games. They would appear to have a strong chance of ending that slide Sunday at Candlestick Park against the Tennessee Titans. Must win? Maybe. But you can't get 49ers coach Mike Singletary to look at it in those terms.

"In my mind, every game is a must-win," Singletary said. "Obviously, we haven't done that, but every game is a must-win. It's very frustrating to have lost the four games that we have, but I don't look at, 'Well, the next two games, we've got to . . .' No, I don't look at it like that because when you do the math, it just comes down to winning the games that we need to win in order to win the division. That's our first goal."

And the 49ers will have to win some games with an offensive line that will be without its left tackle for the next six weeks. Joe Staley, a third-year pro who was quickly developing into the 49ers' best lineman, sustained a right knee sprain that is expected to keep him out until mid-December.

"Obviously, we're going to miss Joe Staley," Singletary said. "But in terms of how it is going to affect our offensive line, which in essence is how it is going to affect our offense, you find a way to win. You find a way to work around it. But obviously he will be missed because we think a lot about Joe Staley."

The 49ers will also be without injured cornerback Nate Clements, who was considered one of the defense's top players before his demotion last week. For the first five weeks of the regular season, Clements was generally matched on the opposition's top wide receiver.

But Clements was removed from the starting lineup for last week's game against the Indianapolis Colts because the 49ers' coaching staff believed third-year player Tarell Brown provided the team with a better matchup.

While the 49ers don't want to start placing this week's game in the win-or-the-season-is-lost category, the importance of the matchup is not lost on anybody.

"It's important for us to win now," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "It's frustrating, but everybody's staying together. To me, that's makes me believe more than anything else. I still think we're going to the playoffs. I know we're going to the playoffs. Even though we're not where we want to be, we're exactly where we are for a reason. Everybody is able, and the most important thing is that everybody's willing to get to the next level."

The 49ers' loss last week to the Colts ranks in the same department as their defeat to the Minnesota Vikings earlier in the season. Both narrow losses came on the road against a team that was unbeaten.

The 49ers led for most of the first three quarters against the Colts before Joseph Addai's fourth-quarter halfback pass caught the 49ers by surprise. It was the only touchdown for the Colts' high-powered offense against the 49ers. Now, the 49ers are looking to rebound from their disappointing 18-14 loss in Indianapolis.

"It was a classic case of an immature team shooting themselves in the foot," Singletary said. "We are a good football team. But when you are playing those kinds of games, those teams that have experience, those teams know where they are going. They know exactly what the heck they are doing and they are executing. We have to get to that point and we will."

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Alex Smith was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft. Vince Young was the third pick in the 2006 draft. Both have returned to the starting lineups of their original teams and will face each other Sunday at Candlestick Park.

"It's really about what each of us can do for our team to help us win," Smith said. "In the end, that's all that matters. That's all anybody will remember about this game."

Both players have thrown 23 touchdowns and 33 interceptions in their NFL careers. But Young has a 19-11 regular-season record as a starter, while Smith's record is 11-20.

"Every situation, especially for a quarterback, is all individually different," Smith said. "I don't think you can judge any two alike. Every guy walks into a different locker room with different pieces around him and different things in place, and you have to adjust to that."

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Outside linebacker Parys Haralson led the 49ers with eight sacks last season and signed a lucrative contract extension in the offseason. But Haralson has gone six games without a sack and has just one for the season.

"Parys Haralson will do just fine, that's just where we are right now," Singletary said. "Max protection is one of the main things that's happened for all of our guys. But we'll still find a way to get there."

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Coach Mike Singletary expressed surprise that the officials would penalize the 49ers for an excessive celebration after tight end Vernon Davis caught a touchdown pass with 33 seconds remaining in the first half against the Colts. The 15-yard penalty allowed the Colts to get into position quickly for a field goal with 1 second remaining in the half.

Receiver Josh Morgan was penalized for getting down on one knee and pretending to take pictures of Davis. After seeing the highlights, Singletary said he knows now why the penalty was called.

"I didn't see all the others taking pictures and all that," Singletary said. "That's just not very smart. So that's on us, that's on me. Maybe it's a good thing I didn't see, I probably would have overreacted or something. That is just something we can't do."

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It has been a long road back for 49ers quarterback Alex Smith, and his head coach likes what he has seen thus far. In fact, after six quarters of Smith as the 49ers' quarterback, Singletary sees the attributes that leads him to believe that the 49ers won't need to go out shopping for a new starting quarterback for 2010.

"We want to do everything that we can to put Alex in the best situation to be successful because it looks like he is developing very quickly into that quarterback that can be a special quarterback," Singletary said. "We are excited about that."

Smith said it was nice to hear those kinds of words from his coach, but he takes a broader view of the 49ers' offense as a whole.

"I've talked to Singletary about this," Smith said. "To be a great offense, an effective offense, you have to be able to do it all. You cannot be one-dimensional. If you look at the Colts (Sunday), yeah, they were in three wides a lot, but you still have to be able to run. I think you saw our defense really take away their run. We made them one- dimensional, and that was probably the least effective they've been all year.

"We have an opportunity to do something like that. The question is continuing to grow and get better. It's not going to come easy. It's not going to be just one change that makes it all come together, we just have to keep battling and keep working."

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Despite a three-game losing streak, Singletary has not softened his talk about making the playoffs.

"We're taking the attitude that we are going to come back and look at winning each of our remaining football games to go to the playoffs," Singletary said.

The 49ers (3-4) remain one game behind the Arizona Cardinals in the NFC West. San Francisco has not produced a winning record since 2002.

The 49ers have lost three close road games this season. Brett Favre and the Minnesota Vikings beat the 49ers 27-24 with a last-second touchdown pass in September, and the 49ers have lost back-to-back games to the Houston Texans (24-21) and Indianapolis Colts (18-14).

The 49ers feel good about the future with quarterback Alex Smith in the lineup. Smith will make his second straight start against the Titans after going more than 700 days without starting a game.

Smith has completed 63 percent of his passes for 404 yards in six quarters of play. Smith has thrown four touchdown passes - all to tight end Vernon Davis.

"He looks like a different Alex," 49ers running back Frank Gore said. "The game is slowing down for him. We just have to starting finishing these games."

Smith lost the quarterback competition to Shaun Hill to open the season as the starter. Smith will look to get back in the good graces of the home fans with Sunday's game at Candlestick Park.

When the 49ers began training camp, he was booed after his first pass attempt was incomplete during a practice session that was open to the public.

Smith has created nice connections with Davis and rookie Michael Crabtree. Davis leads the NFL with seven touchdown receptions. And Crabtree is quickly becoming the 49ers' go-to receiver. Crabtree has 11 receptions for 137 yards in two games since ending a 71-day contract impasse with a six-year contract agreement on Oct. 7.

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The 49ers learned they will be without one of their best offensive linemen for the next six weeks, after left tackle Joe Staley was diagnosed with a knee sprain.

Staley sustained the injury on the 49ers' first offensive play Sunday against the Colts. He sprained the posterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.

The 49ers also lost cornerback Nate Clements to a fractured right scapula that occurred while he returned a punt in the second half of Sunday's game. His injury is expected to keep him out of action six to eight weeks, the team said.

Clements was demoted from the starting lineup for the game against the Colts when the coaching staff determined the team matched up better against the Indianapolis receivers with third-year player Tarell Brown on the field. Clements signed big-money free agent contract in 2007 that included $20 million in guaranteed money.

Staley's injury is extremely significant for the 49ers because the team has now lost its starting tackles in back-to-back games.

Veteran right tackle Tony Pashos sustained a broken scapula Oct. 25 against the Texans. The 49ers placed him on injured reserve and signed tackle Chris Patrick off the Chiefs' practice squad.

Adam Snyder started at right tackle against the Colts, and Barry Sims took over at left tackle against the Colts when Staley was injured. Those two will remain in the starting lineup, coach Mike Singletary said.

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