Michael Martinez: Yes, there is definitely a sense of relief in Santa Clara this week. I think, given the team's 0-5 start, we're seeing a softer, gentler Mike Singletary despite his reputation.
He talks continually about the need to improve and work hard because maybe his old style wasn't working. He knows the game has changed dramatically since his playing days and that the "taskmaster" style of coaching doesn't work with today's professional athletes. I think everyone is breathing a sigh of relief with the victory and is still believing they can be playoff contenders.
ML: What are your thoughts on Alex Smith's season so far? How much do you trust him against a Panthers defense that ranks No. 4 in the NFL with nine INTs?
QB Alex Smith
My honest assessment is that Smith will become a capable backup when this season is over and his contract runs out, but he's also the kind of player who can get the 49ers to the postseason because of the division they play in. The Niners need to make the best use of his ability, which is to spread out the offense, use multiple-receiver formations and get everyone involved. And Smith needs to play with desperation, as if every throw might be his last.
ML: When you think of San Francisco's offensive weapons, the "Big Three" comes to mind: Frank Gore, Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree. Who else should Panthers fans be worried about?
MM: I'd like to say they should be very worried about Brian Westbrook, but so far he's been absent from the offense. Singletary and offensive coordinator Mike Johnson talk about getting Westbrook more involved as the season goes along, but it hasn't happened. He had one pass reception last Sunday for 19 yards but has only touched the ball five times in six games. That's not enough for a guy who is arguably the best third-down back in the history of the game.
Other than him, I'd say Panthers fans should keep their eye on Ted Ginn Jr., who is liable to break off a kickoff or punt return for a touchdown and is always a deep threat when he's on the field.
ML: The 49ers rank No. 10 in total defense, but I get the feeling the team expected better. What is preventing Greg Manusky's unit from being more consistent?
LB Patrick Willis
Patrick Willis, the heart of the defense, still ranks among the top 15 in the league in tackles, although if he's not No. 1, everybody gets worried. I think the consistency is starting to show up now.
ML: The 49ers will be playing the early game on the East Coast. Do you think the team may come out flat as a result?
MM: This is the second time this season the 49ers will have to travel east for a 10 a.m. PT start. They seemed to handle it pretty well in Atlanta, and it's something that Greg Manusky says he stresses to his defense: Begin preparing yourselves early for the start time.
I think it's always possible that players will come out flat because of the time change. Compounding things for the 49ers is that they leave immediately after the game to fly to London for their game against the Denver Broncos the following week. That will be another test for the team time-wise. But my best answer to the question is no, I don't think they'll be flat.
ML: Owner Jed York recently predicted the 49ers will make the playoffs. Do you agree with this prediction? If so, is Sunday's game a must-win for San Francisco?
MM: York didn't predict the team would make the playoffs -- he promised the team would WIN the division. That's going out on a pretty thin limb, but I think he was trying to show Singletary and the players the front office has faith in them to turn it around.
The NFC West is one of the league's two weakest divisions (the AFC West is the other), so I do believe it's possible for the 49ers to win it, but I wouldn't bet on it. Because of that, every game on the schedule almost becomes must-win. Even if an 8-8 record is enough to win the NFC West, the 49ers would have to go 7-3 the rest of the way. Can they do that? They have five games remaining against division foes, plus the winless Panthers, the Broncos and Tampa Bay. So anything is possible.