The road to a second straight NFC West title for the San Francisco 49ers doesn't appear to be as wide open as once thought. A team poised to challenge them might be the surprising Seattle Seahawks.
Looking to bounce back from their worst defeat under Jim Harbaugh, the host 49ers try to continue their recent success against the surging Seahawks in a matchup of co-division leaders Thursday night.
After posting the only winning record in the West last season, San Francisco was an easy preseason pick to repeat as division champ. The 49ers' path to doing so, however, might not be as easy as some predicted, as San Francisco, Seattle and Arizona are 4-2 with St. Louis at 3-3.
The 49ers' next three games are against those division foes, starting with a quick turnaround against a Seahawks team looking to win three in a row after rallying for a 24-23 home victory over New England on Sunday.
"We have a big competition this week in who is going to prepare the best,'' coach Pete Carroll said.
San Francisco has embraced the short week as it has a chance to quickly move on from a 26-3 home loss to New York on Sunday. The Giants recorded six sacks, intercepted Alex Smith three times and racked up 342 yards while handing the Niners their worst defeat since Harbaugh took over as coach last season.
"You've got to dust yourself off and ride," said Harbaugh, whose team managed 314 yards after amassing 621 in a 45-3 win over Buffalo one week earlier. "Right now we have no choice. We have to get to Seattle right quick. We've got a football fight coming.''
Despite Sunday's performance, San Francisco has the NFL's top-ranked defense at 275.8 yards allowed per game. The Seahawks dropped from the top spot to fourth (294.7) after giving up a season-high 475 yards to the Patriots.
The 49ers, trying to avoid consecutive losses for the first time since Dec. 16-26, 2010, will go for a fourth straight victory in the series and fourth in a row at home against the Seahawks. San Francisco has outscored Seattle 96-48 during the three-game home winning streak.
Seattle totaled a season-high 368 yards last week and rookie Russell Wilson went 16 of 27 for 293 yards, throwing two of his three touchdowns in the final 7:31. He connected with Sidney Rice for the 46-yard winner with 1:18 to play.
"When it counted most we played our best,'' Carroll said. "I'm really fired up that we finished so well against a really, really good football team.''
Carroll's club appears to feel capable of anything after beating New England and posting a controversial victory over Green Bay.
"We believe we have a great ballclub and we believe we can play with anybody,'' defensive back Richard Sherman said. "NFL Network and all of these pundits think they know everything and we keep shutting them up week, by week, by week, by week."
For that success to continue, Seattle may need star running back Marshawn Lynch to be more productive at Candlestick Park. Held to a season-low 41 yards on 15 carries Sunday, Lynch has gained 62 on 23 rushes in two games at San Francisco.
The Seahawks rank second in the NFL with 70.0 rushing yards allowed per contest and held San Francisco's Frank Gore to 59 on 22 carries in a 33-17 loss Sept. 11, 2011, at Candlestick.
Gore, who has topped the 200-yard rushing mark twice versus Seattle at home in his career, was held to a season-low 36 yards on eight carries Sunday.
Gore and Smith likely won't have All-Pro left tackle Joe Staley available to help Thursday due to a concussion suffered against New York.
San Francisco's David Akers made eight of his nine field-goal attempts versus Seattle last season, but he's 11 for 16 this year after missing from 43 and 52 yards Sunday.