What we learned from 49ers, NFC West

November, 20, 2011
11/20/11
11:00
PM ET
Alex SmithEzra Shaw/Getty Images"Definitely frustrating," QB Alex Smith said of the 49ers' performance in a win against Arizona.

SAN FRANCISCO -- The frustration Alex Smith expressed for the San Francisco 49ers' offensive skill players was genuine and appropriate Sunday.

Most of them were just OK. Some, including Smith, struggled through one of their least satisfying performances of the season.

They will have to settle for a 9-1 record and the organization's first winning season since the 2002 team went 10-6 with Jeff Garcia, Garrison Hearst and Terrell Owens. Their 23-7 victory over the Arizona Cardinals at Candlestick Park felt as inevitable as any since ... when? This was certainly the least satisfying 49ers victory in a while.

Smith summed up the mindset thusly: "Yeah, we got the win, but definitely frustrated. You don't expect to hit everything [on offense], but we missed too many today."

This game was high in fat, low in fiber, overly spiced (thanks to Dashon Goldson's ejection after one of several skirmishes) and lacking in nutritional value. It will have to tide over the 49ers until their Thursday night game at Baltimore, but they already were getting hungry Sunday night. They acknowledged the significance of 9-1 without reveling in it.

"We don't talk about the simple fact that we're a winning team now," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We kind of just go with the flow now. We expect to win now. It's a blessing. It feels great to be in this situation."

A look at what else we learned and confirmed around the division after the 49ers and Seattle Seahawks coasted to victories over NFC West rivals:

1. The NFC West carrot could dangle a little longer.

San Francisco must step outside the division to measure itself. The 49ers lead second-place Seattle (4-6) by five games with six to play. But with the Seahawks playing their next three games at home against losing teams, the 49ers might have to wait a couple weeks before clinching. Their magic number is down to two.

A San Francisco loss at Baltimore, coupled with a Seattle victory over Washington, would further prolong the inevitable. But a reverse of those results would make the 49ers division champs in Week 12.

2. No quarterback controversy in Arizona

John Skelton or Kevin Kolb? There's no question after Skelton completed 31.6 percent of his passes with three picks before coach Ken Whisenhunt replaced him with Rich Bartel to start the fourth quarter.

Kolb will start against St. Louis in Week 12 if he's healthy enough to do so. The Cardinals can say that was going to be the case anyway, but the game Sunday provided Skelton an opportunity to stay in the lineup a little longer. But the second-year pro failed so miserably that Whisenhunt finished his postgame news conference with a career high for quarterback hits.

"They played well," Whisenhunt said of the 49ers, "but we had wrong reads, bad throws, bad decisions. John played like a rookie today and that was tough."

Whisenhunt said the offense played too poorly "especially at the quarterback position to give us a chance against a good football team." He noted that Skelton "hasn't been the fastest starter" and that the defeat felt worse than the final score suggested.

"The very first pass of the game, he takes an incorrect drop and that throws the timing off and it sails it over the receiver's head," Whisenhunt said. "Those are things you can't do. ... Listen, I'm not trying to blame John, I'm not trying to put it all on John. It was a tough day for a lot of us out there."

The only positive for Skelton: His fourth-quarter passer rating for the season remained unchanged at 101.8.

3. Seahawks showing Rams how to rebuild.

The Rams hired Steve Spagnuolo as coach and promoted Billy Devaney to general manager for the 2009 season. No team in the league has used more top-five draft choices than the Rams since then. The Rams landed their franchise quarterback, invested heavily in their offensive line and should be a least a year ahead of Seattle in the rebuilding process.

That they lost at home to Seattle by a 24-7 score confirmed that the opposite is true.

The Seahawks, now in their second season with coach Pete Carroll and GM John Schneider, have done a better job building up their roster. They've gotten better at every position but quarterback. They've been better prepared than the Rams for injuries.

In some cases, injuries to established players (think Marcus Trufant) have allowed young talent (think rookie Richard Sherman) to shine, brightening the long-term outlook. Even when Seattle missed on players in the draft (think Golden Tate), others have picked up the slack, and then some (think Doug Baldwin). Two players the team acquired by trade, Leon Washington and Chris Clemons, were impact players Sunday and have been since their arrival. Free-agent addition Sidney Rice completed a pass for 55 yards.

Much work still lies ahead for Seattle, but the Seahawks appear further along than the Rams, who have yet to exceed 16 points in a game this season with Sam Bradford behind center.

4. The Cardinals' defense keeps making strides.

Arizona appeared lost on defense early in the season, allowing 932 yards over the first two games. Execution is improving. Effort remains strong.

The Cardinals should expect a multi-sack game from defensive end Calais Campbell at St. Louis after the Rams lost another tackle to injury. But with nose tackle Dan Williams suffering a season-ending broken arm, coordinator Ray Horton might need to adjust. It's tough running a Pittsburgh-style 3-4 defense without top talent at nose tackle. Is David Carter ready for more snaps at the position?

Even before losing Williams, the Cardinals lacked ideal personnel to run Horton's scheme.

Of course, scheme won't matter much for Arizona on defense without better play from Skelton or Kolb. The Cardinals controlled the ball for only 15:44 against the 49ers, their lowest possession total in a game since at least 1981.

No wonder Whisenhunt seemed so ticked off after the game.

5. The 49ers earned the Cardinals' respect.

The 49ers-Cardinals rivalry has produced harsh words and hurt feelings in recent seasons. There's also healthy respect between the best players on each team. Arizona, having already faced Pittsburgh and Baltimore this season, gave San Francisco its due.

"They up there, they can play, they play smart," Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett said.

Guard Daryn Colledge, who won a championship with Green Bay last season, joined Trent Dilfer and Brian Billick in comparing the 49ers to the 2000 Baltimore Ravens.

"They play great team defense, they run the ball well, they control the clock," Colledge said. "That gives you a chance to win."

6. The 49ers need better quarterback play.

Skelton's performance gave the 49ers a low bar to clear Sunday, but for continued success against playoff-caliber teams, the 49ers will need better play from their quarterback.

Smith has defined "elite" quarterback play as consistent performance at a high level. He missed open receivers for touchdown passes that could have blown open this game against Arizona. He also threw a pick in the end zone after scrambling away from a near sack.

"We all understand what we can be when we're rolling and hitting on all cylinders," Smith said. "Definitely frustrating [today]."

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