Around the NFC West: 49ers cannot coast

The San Francisco 49ers had to figure the New Orleans Saints would make them play for the NFC's second playoff seed in Week 17.

That will be the case after the Saints defeated Atlanta on Monday night to keep pace with the 49ers in the conference standings. Both teams are 12-3, but San Francisco would win a tiebreaker based on superior conference record. The Saints lost to Green Bay, Tampa Bay and St. Louis. The 49ers lost to Dallas, Baltimore and Arizona.

If the 49ers can do what the Saints could not -- beat the Rams at the Edward Jones Dome -- they'll get a free pass into the divisional round of the playoffs. And if the Saints lose to Carolina in their regular-season finale, the 49ers will get a bye no matter what happens in St. Louis. But the team can no longer coast into Week 17.

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee notes that the 49ers-Rams and Panthers-Saints games both begin at 1 p.m. ET. Barrows: "The No. 3 seed will host a wild-card round game against either the Lions or Falcons depending on the Week 17 results. The Lions visit Green Bay in the finale; the Falcons host the Buccaneers. The Packers, 49ers, Saints, Lions and Falcons have wrapped up spots in the NFC playoffs. The remaining spot will go to the winner of Sunday's game between the Giants and Cowboys."

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat says the 49ers' Trent Baalke should be named the NFL's top executive this season. Cohn: "Before Baalke took over, the Niners already had Justin Smith and Patrick Willis. Very good defense. Baalke added NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith, the new Charles Haley. And now the 49ers have a great defense. That upgrade to greatness is on Baalke. He brought in Ted Ginn Jr. and Blake Costanzo and he's made the special teams superb and dangerous. He remade the secondary with Carlos Rogers, Donte Whitner and Chris Culliver. He signed center Jonathan Goodwin to anchor the offensive line. He drafted Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati and sometimes they are terrific offensive linemen. And they are improving. He drafted Kendall Hunter -- amazing running back. He drafted Bruce Miller. He drafted Kyle Williams, a big surprise at wide receiver, a real find, and Williams has filled in when others faltered."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle says Jim Harbaugh made little of Scot McCloughan's comments last week.

Keith Goldner of Advanced NFL Stats explains why average starting field position correlates so strongly with winning, specifically for the 49ers. While special teams play a role in the averages, turnovers are the key variable.

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch says Steve Spagnuolo could be heading into his final game as the Rams' head coach. Thomas: "This season began with the Rams considered a favorite by many to win the NFC West. But injuries, historically bad offense and run defense, plus one of the league's toughest schedules have resulted in a 2-13 disaster. Spagnuolo, considered one of the hottest coordinators in the game when hired in January 2009, has one year left on his contract. In late November, league sources told the Post-Dispatch that (owner Stan) Kroenke almost certainly hadn't made up his mind about what to do with both Spagnuolo and general manager Billy Devaney, who also has one year left on his contract."

Nick Wagoner of stlouisrams.com runs through Rams injuries and says cornerback Justin King is headed for surgery.

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com says coach Ken Whisenhunt sees significance in getting to 8-8 following a 1-6 start to the season. Urban: "With both the Seahawks and Cards losing over the weekend, the only thing at stake Sunday will be that .500 mark – Seattle is also 7-8 – and second place in the NFC West. Considering all the momentum gained by the winning streak and the playoff possibilities, losing to the Bengals could deflate the locker room. Whisenhunt, however, doesn’t see that, not after the players were able to rally from a six-game losing streak."

Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic says Cardinals quarterback Kevin Kolb continues to fight through concussion symptoms. McManaman: "Whisenhunt said Kolb handled the plane ride in from Phoenix all right, but that once the quarterback got to the stadium, the sun and the noise from the crowd began to get to him."

Paola Boivin of the Arizona Republic expects improvement from the Cardinals in 2012.

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune says the Seahawks have done a good job finding starting-caliber talent from unexpected places. Williams: "The Seahawks appear to have their corners of the future in Brandon Browner and Richard Sherman. Sherman, a fifth-round selection in this year’s draft out of Stanford, took over at left corner when Marcus Trufant and Walter Thurmond went down with season-ending injuries. Sherman has three interceptions in nine games, and he plays with a swagger that fits in perfectly with the rest of the defense. And with three of the team’s projected starting five on the offensive line -- rookies James Carpenter and John Moffitt, and second-year pro Russell Okung -- out with injuries, the Seahawks continue to churn out the yards on the ground."

Danny O'Neil of the Seattle Times runs through what he learned from the Seahawks' game against San Francisco. He also points to the team's continued strength in blocking kicks. O'Neil: "For that, special-teams coach Brian Schneider deserves some recognition. Seattle's Red Bryant has blocked three field-goal attempts, one point-after try and on Saturday the Seahawks blocked a punt for the second time this year. That is a tribute to Schneider's attention to detail, pin-pointing and targeting weaknesses in opponents' formations. Last year, his units were the single biggest strength of the team, and while Seattle's kick coverage was a problem the first half of this season, the other units have shown his imprint."