Mailbag: How to win a playoff game

Mark from Richmond, Va., writes: What will it take for the San Francisco 49ers to get back to the playoffs and maybe win one?

Mike Sando: They need to stay on their current trajectory and hope the Cardinals fall off without Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle and the other players they lost.

As far as winning a playoff game, it's not all that hard for division winners. Win the division, get a home playoff game and beat a flawed team in the wild-card round. That's what the Cardinals and Seahawks have done over the last several years, and once you get past that first round, you can become a dangerous team -- particularly if the team with home-field advantage doesn't have playoff experience. Arizona won at Carolina a couple years ago after getting that first playoff victory out of the way in the wild-card round.

Casey from parts unknown writes: Do you think that Ray Willis will end up as a starter for the Seahawks this year? I have been really impressed by his play and versatility over the past few years, unlike Chris Spencer. I think the starting line should be Russell Okung (LT), Ben Hamilton (LG), Max Unger (C), Ray Willis (RG) and Sean Locklear (RT), but Willis, in some depth charts, seems like the one left out of this list (for Chris Spencer). In addition, I think the Willis group is potentially an elite offensive line in the NFL.

Mike Sando: Ray Willis surprised me last season by playing a full season despite a knee that has given him some problems. My thought in the past was that Willis would have been a good fit for the 49ers. They were interested in him, as I recall, but he chose to stay in Seattle. I might be selling Willis short again, but my feeling now is that he isn't the best fit for the style of zone blocking scheme Alex Gibbs has used for quite a few years.

Willis has good qualities. He's big, strong and can be nasty, too. But the Seahawks are putting a premium on movement and quickness in their current scheme. Those are not Willis' strong suits. Spencer has been criticized a bit unfairly, I think, based more on what he is not (a great offensive lineman) than for what he is (a pretty good one when healthy). Spencer doesn't have that Willis nasty streak, but he should be athletic enough to play in this scheme. And that is why you might see him in the lineup.

Brent from Montana writes: I stayed away from the conversation about who's better between Frank Gore and Steven Jackson. While I'm not willing to say Gore is the better of the two, I'm also not willing to say Jackson is. If we go by who is the better receiver/blocker/running back, I call it even. If we look at the numbers, I call it even. If I look at the way they have both been used (on horrible teams), I call it even.

I guess we can look at 2009 and compare the most recent stats available. Gore put up 1,120 yards on 229 attempts with a 4.9 average with 10 touchdowns in 14 games started. Jackson put up 1,416 yards in 324 attempts with a 4.4-yard average and 4 touchdowns. Would you rather have Steven's yards and touchdowns on 324 attempts or Gore's yards and touchdowns on his 229 attempts?

Mike Sando: The numbers do matter, but both players have good numbers. From there, I think we appreciate them for their distinct qualities. Jackson is bigger. I marvel at his size-speed combination and what linebackers (let alone defensive backs) must be thinking when they see him rumbling their way and right on past them, in some cases. With Gore, I marvel at the tenacity and the punch he packs. He's only 5-foot-9, so there's a tendency to underestimate his power. He plows through people and is very tough to tackle.

Both players run with attitude. Jackson's physical package sets him apart from just about every top back in the league, though.