In shady NFC West, Niners still contenders

Michael Silver
Yahoo Sports

On a cool, clear desert night, in a stadium enclosed by a retractable roof, San Francisco 49ers coach Mike Singletary rocked some stylish Oakley shades on the sideline. My visceral reaction, in a word: Dude.

If it was time for Coach Sing to man up during Monday night's game against the Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium, his players certainly got the message. In a battle of rivals whose collective self-esteem heading into the 2010 season was more artificially bloated than a float at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, the 49ers shone brightly from the start, rolling to a 27-6 victory over the Cardinals that kept hope alive.

If the viewing audience was squinting at the sight of two 3-7 teams scrapping for survival in the national spotlight, the Niners, against all logic, could envision a viable path to the playoffs by night's end. I know, it sounds absurd: San Francisco, the trendy preseason pick to win the NFC West, lost its first five games, cycled through three quarterbacks and became the first and (so far) only team to provide the league-worst Carolina Panthers with a taste of victory.

And yet, with five games remaining, the Niners (4-7) are just a game back of the NFC West-leading Rams and Seahawks. Even the Cards (3-8), the two-time defending division champs, cling to mathematical life, though it's hard to go on a five-game winning streak when you can't run, pass or stop the run – among other deficiencies.

The 49ers, to their credit, exploited the Cardinals' weaknesses and never gave Ken Whisenhunt's team a sense that it could compete in Monday's game. San Francisco, coming off a 21-0 defeat to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – the first time the Niners had been shut out at home in more than 33 years – got good quarterback play from Troy Smith(notes) for the third time in his four starts, while the Cardinals received the usual depressing dose of Derek Anderson(notes).

Put it this way: This team misses Kurt Warner(notes) like the Doors miss Jim Morrison, Destiny's Child misses Beyonce or "American Idol" will miss Simon Cowell.

The 49ers were impressive on Monday, but viewing them as a potential playoff participant still seems like a stretch. Were it not for the fact that they play in perhaps the worst division in NFL history, one which may well become the first in a non-strike season to boast a champion with a losing record, the Niners would be just another struggling franchise trying to figure out how to woo Jon Gruden out of the booth and into its waiting embrace.

Actually, at season's end, the 49ers might well be searching for a new coach like Gruden, or Jim Harbaugh, or A.B.S. (Anybody But Singletary), even if they manage to sneak into the playoffs. Team president Jed York is unhappy with the current state of affairs and seems motivated to try to inject some life into an organization that, under his uncle Eddie DeBartolo's stewardship, once was the class of the sports world.

Until then, Singletary and the 49ers control their playoff outlook. Maybe they'll stun the team's owners, too. After all, as per the NFL's formula, the NFC West winner will host a first-round playoff game, and Candlestick Park could provide the Niners with a flickering-candle's chance of winning their first postseason game since 2003.

Remember, the '08 Cardinals were just 9-7 before mounting a run to the Super Bowl in which Warner, Larry Fitzgerald(notes) and company came within 35 seconds of a championship. That same season the San Diego Chargers rode a four-game, season-ending winning streak to finish 8-8 and somehow capture the AFC West crown – what is it with the screwy side of the country I call home and really mediocre pro football as of late? – before stunning Peyton Manning(notes) and the 12-4 Colts in the playoffs.

So, if you're a Niners fan, there is reason to keep the faith, at least for a little longer. Though San Francisco still has a pair of tough road games, next Sunday against the Packers and a Thursday night game against the red-hot Chargers in mid-December, the 49ers' other three opponents all happen to own NFC West membership cards, meaning they are eminently beatable. The 49ers will face the Seahawks and Cardinals at Candlestick and travel to St. Louis to face the Rams, a team they defeated two weeks ago.

It's hard to tell whether Monday's game signified a rounding into stride on San Francisco's part or merely the Cardinals' official return to Bidwillian laughingstock status, but I have a feeling the Niners' embattled head coach will spin it as a sign of great things to come.

After all, Singletary's entire coaching tenure has been marked by relentless (and seemingly unrealistic) optimism, and for the first time in 2010, he seems to have some hard evidence to back up his rosy view of the world.

To Coach Sing, the future's so bright, he's got to wear shades – indoors, at night, whenever/wherever.

IF I SLIPPED JON GRUDEN SOME TRUTH SERUM …

Midway through the third quarter, as the 49ers' Shane Andrus(notes) lined up for a 37-yard field-goal attempt, Gruden said, "Let's see if Arizona can block a kick. They've done a nice job blocking kicks over the last few years, with these 6-foot-4 defensive linemen across the board." Seconds later, Andrus' kick was, in fact, blocked by the Cards.

Gruden resisted the temptation to gloat. Not with serum on board, however:

Let's see if Arizona can block a kick. They've done a nice job blocking kicks over the last few years, with these 6-foot-4 defensive linemen … the same ones who can't stop the run tonight, so they'd might as well do something. And bam – there you have it. That's right, ladies and gentlemen, I am so plugged into this game they call football that I can see the future! That's why the University of Miami is trying to get me to restore their football program to national supremacy by delivering suitcases full of money to my front door in Tampa.

And I'm thinking about doing it, because I'd kick everybody's ass, and I'd be known as The Professor, and I'd have office hours every Friday at the News Caf é in South Beach. I mean, can you imagine me in living rooms – the kids with their jaws open, the moms drooling? Think I might be able to close? Anyway, it's a nice fantasy, but what I'll probably do is humor The U and every other college that has a job opening and bide my time until after the NFL season, when some owner will pay me $6 million a year to come back and show the Glazers how stupid they were to fire me – and kick the [expletive] out of all these coaches I've been buttering up in the booth the past two seasons.

Anyway, did I mention that I just called a blocked field goal on national television?

TUESDAY MORNING HAIKU

Dancing with the Stars?
Kurt Warner might as well be
dancing on their grave

ONE E FOR FREE

LOL! NFL's biggest beefs squashed via texts. I'M STILL LMAO!!!!!!!! You should keep this going. Every week post a new text apology. You got one from Wade Phillips to Jerry Jones for destroying the Boys?

Sam
Houston

Hmmmmm. How's this: "Even tho i had da same win pct. as Landry i no we were bad & flat this yr … until JG took over. Oops, my bad. Keep sendin chx lol"