Confusion reigns in muddled NFC West

December, 12, 2010
12/12/10
10:45
PM ET
Nate ClementsCary Edmondson/US Presswire49ers cornerback Nate Clements picked off Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck in the third quarter of the 49ers' 40-21 victory.
SAN FRANCISCO -- Week after week, like fools, we come seeking clarity.

We find only confusion.

A visit to Candlestick Park in Week 14 brought this: the San Francisco 49ers' Alex Smith vastly outplaying the Seattle Seahawks' Matt Hasselbeck.

What to make of the 49ers' 40-21 victory Sunday? The 49ers gave themselves a shot at winning the NFC West title and the division's automatic playoff berth.

Beyond that, good luck.

"That is what you like about this league," Seahawks fullback Michael Robinson said. "It really is any given Sunday. Anything can happen."

This is what I dislike about this league, or at least about this division. Thirteen games into the season, no team in the NFC West appears legitimate. Individual outcomes mean less when blowout victories follow blowout defeats, week after week. Every team in the NFC West has won and lost by double digits in its last two games.

Sure, we can see where the St. Louis Rams are heading eventually with Sam Bradford at quarterback, but the slope from 6-7 this week to 7-9 or even 6-10 by season's end could be a slippery one for them.

Every team in the division has a losing record. Three of the four teams have serious question marks at quarterback beyond this season.

Those quarterback question marks stood out Sunday as Smith, written off after posting a 1-6 record in his previous seven starts this season, shredded Seattle's defense for 255 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a 130.9 rating.

Smith, like Hasselbeck, does not have a contract for next season.

"I'd be lying if I said it wasn't there," Smith said. "No question, it's in the back of my head. But with that said, I'm determined to stay in the moment, determined just to focus on this one game, not taking anything for granted."

About the only thing Smith can take for granted would be an endorsement from 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who made it five games in a row with a touchdown reception when Smith -- Alex, not Troy -- is under center.

"Oh, he will remain the starter," Davis said. "I'm sure. I believe in that. Not saying anything bad about Troy Smith. I'm happy to have both of those guys. Whoever is playing is going to be good. You had better believe that. But I look forward to the next three games with Alex Smith at quarterback."

Then what? Massive changes likely await the 49ers even if they do manage to claim the NFC West title this season. Nothing about them suggests a deep playoff run awaits them. They impressed Sunday largely because an increasingly desperate Hasselbeck kept throwing the ball to them -- four times in all, plus a lost fumble that led to more 49ers points.

Hasselbeck came unraveled without leading receiver Mike Williams, compounding one error with another and another.

If the Seahawks decide to start over at quarterback this offseason, they'll point to games like the one Hasselbeck played Sunday to make them feel better about the decision.

Hasselbeck showed again how much he can struggle with change and uncertainty. The 6-foot-5 Williams and sometimes slot receiver Brandon Stokley seem to be the only receivers he trusts. A growing rapport with Ben Obomanu hit a wall Sunday when a hand injury prevented Obomanu from playing. Hasselbeck should get Williams and Obomanu back next week, but it's tough to envision Seattle beating Atlanta -- even during this up-and-down season.

The interception Hasselbeck threw right before halftime Sunday -- the one intended for a well-covered Stokley in the end zone -- became a blur when Hasselbeck opened the second half with an interception even more costly. Niners free safety Dashon Goldson returned that one 39 yards for a touchdown.

"The frustration and the pick right before the half was inexcusable," Hasselbeck said. "It was just terrible. It was awful. It was straight frustration."

There are still times when Hasselbeck plays as well as ever, but shouldn't a 35-year-old quarterback know better than to force passes out of pure frustration? I'm not sure Hasselbeck would have lasted this long as the starter if Williams hadn't improbably emerged as a dominant threat. He tossed eight interceptions over two December games when Seattle found itself in desperation mode late last season. He has one touchdown pass and six picks in two games this December.

"Matt was seeing things well," coach Pete Carroll said Sunday. "He knew what was going on. He was clear about the mistakes that were made. We felt like he made the corrections, so he was on it."

Hasselbeck still gives Seattle its best chance to finish strong and make a run at the playoffs.

The truth, though, is that the playoffs should not be an option for rebuilding teams. These Seahawks might be fortunate to win four games under more conventional circumstances. A weak division, some creative coaching, Leon Washington's spectacular contributions in the return game and Williams' out-of-nowhere revival have kept them in the playoff race. But they're a 6-7 team with all seven defeats by double-digit margins.

"It is puzzling," Hasselbeck said. "We think we're a lot better than we showed today. We practice a lot better than we are today. But sure, if you just see us play on Sundays, you are scratching your head and saying, 'What the heck is the deal with this team?' "

The 49ers' fans can relate. Their team has gone 5-3 since its 0-5 start. Getting Alex Smith's finest performance of the season in a game the 49ers had to win left them more hopeful than they've been at any point all season.

Linebacker Takeo Spikes, still searching for his first playoff appearance in 13 NFL seasons, sounded perplexed when I asked him whether teams could extract greater meaning from individual games amid so much inconsistency.

"Yeah, you still got a chance to play in January," Spikes said. "A lot of teams right now are playing games that are not meaningful. I'm very grateful for the opportunity to still have a chance at the midpoint of December. That is big for me."

It will have to suffice.

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