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Around the NFC West: Beyond the fumble

The San Francisco 49ers' playoff elimination suddenly forces them to face the tough questions an offseason brings into focus.

Forget about Kyle Williams' rough day on punt returns in the NFC Championship Game. Those miscues were unfortunate, but not all that revealing. Williams assumed the role of returner only because Ted Ginn Jr. could not play.

It was the 49ers' colossal struggles on third down — struggles that dogged them throughout the season — that invite the tough questions.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa-Press Democrat put it this way: "(Alex) Smith had an all-time great game, an unbelievable game -- for him -- against the New Orleans Saints. Everyone praised him for a week and said he had crossed a border from just another quarterback to the land of the elite. Now we say it's possible he had one great game, but in the most important game, he re-crossed the border, walked back to the world of Just Another Quarterback where he had resided for years. He was not good enough against the Giants, and if that statement seems rude, it is not as rude as getting eliminated." Noted: The 49ers obviously need to re-sign Smith. He was a good fit with Harbaugh. He improved. But it's also critical the 49ers improve the offense around him. They badly need help at wide receiver. Getting Josh Morgan back from injury could help if Morgan re-signs. The team still needs to upgrade the position.

Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com also looked past the Williams miscues. Ratto: "Put another way, the 49ers’ 20-17 overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game will be remembered as Kyle Williams’ cross to bear. But in the grander scheme, this will be the game in which the 49er Way was more hindrance than help, and the Giants got what they deserved more than the 49ers did. ... The 49ers’ worst tendencies -- the long stretches where the ball could not be moved -- and the absence of their best virtue -- taking the ball from the other guy -- meshed into the anti-Saints game. It was a game where the other guy gets his credit through clenched teeth, the rehash takes a few days of pain, and then the resolve of the new year begins."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News says Williams will forever be remembered for what went wrong in this game. Kawakami: "There’s no certainty that the 49ers were ever going to score in overtime; the offense struggled all game—including Williams, who replaced Ginn in the starting line-up and had no catches. But there’s no debating that Williams’ last fumble was the end of the line. He will live with that, and so will his team."

Eric D. Williams of the Tacoma News Tribune sits down with draft analyst Rob Rang for an extended look at options for the Seattle Seahawks. Rang on Texas A&M quarterback Ryan Tannehill: "I'm personally am very high on Ryan Tannehill. I’ve had him as a first-round caliber quarterback essentially all year long. But at the same time, he did struggle late in some ballgames this year. There are some knocks on him as far as does he have the poise in the pocket at the end of games to really win the game for you when the game is on the line."

Darren Urban of azcardinals.com revisits how the Cardinals fared against the final four playoff teams. They were 1-3. Urban: "The losses to the Ravens and Giants, of course, were the two most painful of the season. In both cases the Cardinals probably should have won given the circumstances, with a 24-3 lead in Baltimore late in the first half in the first case and a 10-point lead with less than five minutes left at home in the second. Of course, 'should have' is a dangerous concept in this league. There are eight opponents of the Cards this season that were undoubtedly thinking 'should have' after the Cards knocked them off."

Also from Urban: He sees an NFC West on the rise. Urban: "Now that the Rams have Jeff Fisher, the division can also argue it has the highest-profile coaches from top to bottom, with Jim Harbaugh in San Francisco, Pete Carroll in Seattle and Ken Whisenhunt in Arizona. The coaching staffs may be more stable now across the division than they have in a long while. What will be interesting is if all the teams can continue to build with their current quarterback situations, which in today’s NFL remains the No. 1 building block for any franchise."

Jim Thomas of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch summarizes fears created by the Rams' agreement to play three home games in London. Thomas: "In a worst-case lease scenario, the Rams could be free to leave St. Louis following the 2014 season, which also is the year of the last London game. Coincidence? Throw in the fact that Stan Kroenke owns Arsenal soccer club in the English Premier League and owns the stadium they play in. Add to that the fact that the NFL has discussed the possibility of having a franchise based in London. Well, it doesn't take much to connect the dots."