49ers' playoff plan starts now

49ers' playoff plan starts now
November 10, 2011, 7:10 pm
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The number of folks who have been wrong about the 49ers are legion -- probably including the 49ers themselves.

And while they have been basking the glory of being 7-1 when most folks saw far less, the interesting part starts now. The playoff plans start now. The expectations start now.

The world is now different, and the comparison point is no longer Mike Singletary, but Bill Walsh.

We know how they got here, because the story is told breathlessly every single day. A decent defense is now elite. A poor offense is now careful and efficient. Frank Gore has been revivified -- revivified himself. Other than grabbing their throats against Dallas, they have beaten bad teams, underachieving teams, confounding teams and intriguing teams on bad days.

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The how they got here doesnt matter, though. Theyre 7-1, and nobody else is. Its how they intend to keep doing as theyve done so as to maximize their tickets in January.

The Harbaugh Family Singers have made a hit record out of that old Anglican hymn Whos Got It Better Than us? And while the refrain has routinely been No-body, the answer is actually key to their long-term health.

Long-term, of course, being the playoffs.

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By now, being up five with eight to go means their magic number is four. But being five up on Seattle and Arizona, and six up on St. Louis, is as close to unconditional center as one can get this early in the process. None of the other even have wild card aspirations, so they have nothing to play for save their own safety.

Thus, their world has gotten considerably smaller, and as a result these are their new obstacles:

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GREEN BAY
The toughest of all, because the one thing the Packers cannot do, the 49ers have shown no signs of exploiting. Green Bay is an easy mark for a top-level quarterback with lots of weapons, but the 49ers have not shown any signs of having either. And the Packers force teams into a shootout, which the 49ers are loath to engage. They also rank among the top teams in the league against the run, which would seem to force the 49ers to throw even more. The key to a deep run in January, then, demands that they avoid the Packers in the second round.

NEW ORLEANS
The Saints are a lot like the Packers, only with a more accomplished running game, and a less accomplished run defense. In short, Gore will get his, but hell have to get his and then some to keep up with what Drew Brees and his offense are used to getting. The 49ers will be better positioned if they can get the Saints at home, but that would be the case with every team but Green Bay anyway.

NEW YORK GIANTS
Everything you need to know about the wildly dysfunctional NFL East is explained by the Giants being two games better than anyone else in it. The Giants have no discernible running game, and Eli Mannings renaissance explains why they are not treading mud with the Eagles and Redskins. They are also generous against the run, putting them particularly vulnerable against a team that likes to run and thrives against one-dimensional offenses.

CHICAGO
Matt Forte is most of the offense, and the defense is better against the run than the pass. At home, they are difficult. On the road, they are ordinary. They will be a wild card team, so their stay isnt likely to be long or fruitful.

ATLANTA
The Falcons are excellent against the run, mediocre against the pass, and middle of the pack in all offensive phases. In short, Matt Ryan has to steal a game, and while he is capable enough of doing so that Atlanta could end up winning the South and hosting an opening round game, theyll have to play the second week out in the open. They are 9-4 over the past two years outside Georgia, but theyre not nearly so imposing outside.

Every other team is 4-4 or worse, and while theres lots of time left to change the wild card and NFL South teams, the 49ers world view looks suspiciously narrow -- Wisconsin and Louisiana.

So Whos Got It Better Than Them? Were going to find out soon enough. The fact that theyre going to have wait for their fate is news enough.

Ray Ratto is a columnist for Comcast SportsNet Bay Area.