San Francisco 49ers And The NFC's Wild West: Anybody's Division

Joseph BurkeyAnalyst IDecember 20, 2010

Run Smith, Run!!!
Run Smith, Run!!!Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images

The 49ers remain one game back in the NFC West, thanks to two teams that beat them earlier this year.

The Atlanta Falcons beat the Seattle Seahawks 34-18 and the Kansas City Chiefs beat the St. Louis Rams 27-13 Sunday.

So the 49ers are, believe it or not, still alive in a three-legged race for the NFC West.

Only the Arizona Cardinals have been eliminated from playoff contention, and that just happened this weekend after they got jumped by the Carolina Panthers 19-12.

As 49ers fans, it's difficult to say this has been one of the most interesting years for football, but the way the league is shaping up, this December is downright incredible.

The winner of the NFC West will have a record no better than 8-8, and will certainly host a wild card team with 10-plus wins.

It's even possible that a 10-win team will be denied a playoff spot, while a 7-9 division winner emerges from the NFC.

49ers fans can say a lot about this year. Call it painful, call it frustrating, call it dingle berries on parade; uninteresting, however, simply doesn't fit this anomaly of a year.

In 2008, much fuss was made about the New England Patriots being denied a playoff bid at 11-5, while the Arizona Cardinals coasted in as NFC West Champions at 9-7.

The volume died down, however, when the Cardinals stormed through the playoffs to the Super Bowl.

In the first round, they handed the 11-5 Atlanta Falcons 30-24. Next they trounced the 12-4 Carolina Panthers 33-13. Finally, they knocked off the renegade 9-6-1 wild-card Philadelphia Eagles.

Of course, the Cards went on to lose to the Pittsburgh Steelers 27-23 in one of the wildest Super Bowls played recently, but the damage was done.

Respect had been returned to the NFC West.

Flash Forward to 2010. The Cardinals no longer have Kurt Warner, the quarterback who led them on that run (the greatest in their franchise's history) and the resulting power vacuum has led us to three gimpy teams scrapping for the division.

The San Francisco 49ers are one of the most interesting of these teams: Not because they've been good all year, but because of the expectations placed on them at the beginning of the season. A rough schedule, injuries, a quarterback controversy and the play-calling of a seemingly mad man stifled any dreams of an easy division win, however.

Nevertheless, they are in position to become the first team to start the season 0-5 and make the playoffs with a losing record. But the scenario in which this could happen implies two things, as they are not in entirely in control of their own destiny.

First, they must beat the St. Louis Rams this Sunday. That much is in their control. Next, however, Seattle must lose one of their next two games to Tampa Bay or St. Louis; neither of these outcomes are impossible, however.

St. Louis needs to beat San Francisco to keep their lead and would also need to defeat Seattle in their season finale.

So San Francisco is the x-factor in this gimp race.

Seattle might be considered the favorite, if such a thing exists here. They have the seasoned veteran quarterback in Matt Hasselbeck.

A product of Mike Holmgren's tutelage, Hasselbeck's experience and grit could prove to be the difference is Seattle somehow manages to win out the regular season. The 49ers would have a tie breaker over the Seahawks, however, should Seattle slip in either of their final two games.

The St. Louis Rams are an interesting specimen of a club in and of themselves this year. They're an extremely young team with a lot of potential to grow on both sides of the ball. Probable rookie-of-the-year Sam Bradford leads their budding offense, while their defense is cemented by Chris Long and James Laurenaitis.

Given the absurdity of this year's divisional standings, there's not a team in this race that makes sense. And given the absurdity of that, it makes perfect sense.

It's going to be a fascinating finish for a December to truly remember—whether for better, or worse.