Around the NFC West: 49ers' huge stakes

Week 16 brought great clarity to the NFL playoff situation in the NFC West.

The Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals are out. The San Francisco 49ers are strong favorites to emerge as the second seed in the NFC. They can no longer challenge for the No. 1 seed after Green Bay defeated Chicago. But if New Orleans loses to Atlanta on Monday night, the 49ers will clinch the second seed -- and a first-round playoff bye -- without needing to beat St. Louis in Week 17.

Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats spells out the value of getting a first-round bye relative to reaching a Super Bowl. Burke: "The No. 1 seed has about six times the chance of a wild-card team to make it to the Super Bowl. The No. 2 seed has nearly five times the chance. These are enormous differences, and they’re due to seeding effects alone. Right now, the 49ers and Saints are jockeying for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The loser of that battle will fall from a 29 percent shot to an 11 percent shot at making the Super Bowl." Noted: I think there's value in an unestablished team claiming a wild-card victory before taking on one of the higher-seeded teams. But the first-round bye removes all risk of defeat in the wild-card round. That's a huge payoff.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the 49ers' Alex Smith was more than just a game manager during San Francisco's 19-17 victory over the Seahawks. Barrows: "With his 49ers reeling and the Seattle crowd roiling in the fourth quarter, the normally cautious quarterback reared back on second and 18 and heaved a 41-yard pass to Michael Crabtree, setting up a 39-yard David Akers field goal that gave San Francisco the lead."

Also from Barrows: An all-Harbaugh Super Bowl isn't so far-fetched.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers are running out of healthy pass-catchers. He also updates the 49ers' turnover numbers. Branch: "The 49ers haven’t committed a turnover in 18 straight quarters, a streak that dates back to an interception Smith threw late in the second quarter of a 16-6 loss to the Ravens on Nov. 24. Since that pick, Smith has thrown 129 passes without an interception and San Francisco, which leads the NFL with a plus-26 turnover differential, has forced 10 turnovers. Entering Saturday’s game, the Seahawks had forced 18 turnovers in their previous six games and had collected at least one turnover in every game since Week 4."

Howard Balzer of 101ESPN St. Louis captures what is wrong -- and also what is right -- with the 2-13 St. Louis Rams. Steven Jackson is the good. Coach Steve Spagnuolo: "On a level of admiration on a scale of 1 to 10, I’m at a 15. I don’t know how else to say it. He is a very passionate football player. He’s passionate about how he plays, the way he plays; he’s passionate about the team he plays for; he’s passionate about the guys he plays for. He’s been that way ever since I’ve gotten here. He hasn’t changed and I think people see that in the way he plays, and he was certainly that way today."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch updates Jackson's contract situation: "With 32 yards rushing in the season finale Sunday, Jackson will reach half of a two-tiered trigger that could void the final two years of his contract. But he needs 198 yards receiving to reach the second part of the trigger — and that's not going to happen, unless Jackson has the receiving game of a lifetime. But even with all the losing, Jackson seemingly has no desire to play anywhere else."

Also from Thomas: Injuries at cornerback have led the Rams to use extra safeties in their nickel and dime packages.

Mike Salk of 710ESPN Seattle says Tarvaris Jackson has outperformed expectations, but isn't good enough for the Seahawks to take the next step. Salk: "It is OK to be a game manager. Alex Smith has won 12 games this year in that capacity and surely we know the stories of Trent Dilfer, Brad Johnson and even a young Tom Brady winning Super Bowls. Game managers win by controlling the ball, understanding the importance of field position, and getting the ball in the hands of the playmakers. But they also have to lead important drives late in games because their teams typically haven't scored enough points to win it handily. Tarvaris Jackson has not done that this year. In limited opportunities, he has failed at that important skill. And I think it will be the reason his time in Seattle will end sooner rather than later." Noted: Jackson would be the ideal backup behind a front-line starter.

Brady Henderson of 710ESPN Seattle says Heath Farwell and the Seahawks exploited the 49ers' tendency to release into coverage early in blocking Andy Lee's fourth-quarter punt Saturday. Henderson: "Farwell had seen that reserve linebacker Blake Costanzo, who lines up as a left tackle on the punt unit, was often quick to disengage from his block and head down the field toward the returner, leaving an unobstructed path to the punter. Farwell, whose job on the punt return team is normally to slow the opposing team's tackle at the line of scrimmage, took advantage of that tendency." Noted: I spoke with Costanzo about the play and he said that's exactly what happened. He took full responsibility. The play proved costly at the time, but the 49ers now have time to adjust before such a problem arises in a playoff game.

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times notes that the Seahawks were only 4-4 at home this season. Noted: Blowing a 17-7 lead to lose at home against the Washington Redskins stands out as the most lamentable home defeat for Seattle.

Also from O'Neil: thoughts on a 49ers assistant coach shouting, "Merry Christmas!" while leaving the Seahawks' press box.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says the Cardinals' propensity for slow starts on offense caught up to them during a 23-16 defeat at Cincinnati. Urban: "With Kevin Kolb still suffering from concussion symptoms -- his availability for the finale seems in doubt at this point -- John Skelton got the start. Skelton was terrible for three quarters as the Cardinals failed to cross midfield and trailed, 23-0. Then he turned into Super Skelton in the fourth quarter -- as usual -- and nearly shocked everyone. Just 8-of-19 for 93 yards, with three interceptions and five sacks, through the first three quarters, (coach Ken) Whisenhunt admitted he considered benching Skelton for Rich Bartel. But Skelton completed 15-of-25 passes for 204 yards and two touchdowns in the final quarter." Noted: Skelton has proven he's worth keeping around for developmental purposes, but not yet ready to start. That is OK. He was a fifth-round pick only last year. The fact that he won a roster spot, kept that spot, won a few starts and even briefly led some to think he should remain in the lineup means he has already outperformed expectations.

Kent Somers of the Arizona Republic says Skelton's accuracy must improve.

Dan Bickley of the Arizona Republic blames the Cardinals' defeat more on Skelton than on Early Doucet's stumble late in the game.