Around the NFC West: Did 49ers peak?

The San Francisco 49ers have now lost two of their last three games.

They were not very good at Baltimore on Thanksgiving, but traveling across country on a short week is never easy. Clinching the NFC West title against St. Louis last week overshadowed flaws in the 49ers' performance against the Rams.

Blaming Patrick Willis' injury absence for the 49ers' 21-19 defeat at Arizona in Week 14 would qualify as outright denial.

The 49ers are 10-3 and headed to the playoffs, but they are operating at lower efficiency lately. They earned the right to celebrate their NFC West championship last week, but they also appear to have plateaued some in recent weeks.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat cut them no slack. Cohn: "The Ravens are, at least, a good team, a playoff team. ... OK, what did they learn in that game that they applied to the Arizona game? How to lose on the road. How to lose to John Skelton, a bad backup quarterback they murdered a few weeks ago. How not to score touchdowns when they should. In the first half, they got the ball to the Cardinals' 4, 6 and 4 and each time had to kick a field goal. It was like the goal line had an invisible shield."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News was surprised to see the 49ers lose at Arizona. He thinks the team suffered a letdown against an opponent it had dominated a few weeks ago. Kawakami: "They’re still 10-3, still headed to the playoffs, and still can fend off New Orleans for the No. 2 seed -- and a bye in the first round of the playoffs -- with a strong finish. But it will be fascinating to see what happens after this head-scratching performance. Do they come back roaring Monday night against Pittsburgh? Or do the 49ers got into a funk and slip back into 2010 habits?"

Cam Inman of the San Jose Mercury News passes along 49ers notes, including one from safety Donte Whitner about Cardinals quarterback John Skelton. Whitner says Skelton played "backyard football, and that’s something Ben Roethlisberger does, so we have to be ready next week."

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com says 49ers players expressed frustration following the defeat. Michael Crabtree wanted the ball more. Braylon Edwards wanted on the field more. Crabtree: "I have no words, really. I saw a lot of opportunities. I really don't want to say anything negative. You know what I'm saying? But it's hard. When you're trying to be the man, and you're trying to do what you're supposed to do, trying to grind it out, trying to be the receiver, and you don't get the ball. It's hard. It's disappointing. I don't know, man. I don't need to be talking right now."

Also from Maiocco: a 49ers injury update detailing protocol after left tackle Joe Staley suffered an apparent concussion. NFL policy: "Once removed for the duration of a practice or game, the player should not be considered for return-to-football activities until he is fully asymptotic, both at rest and after exertion, has a normal neurological examination, normal neuropsychological testing, and has been cleared to return by both his team physician(s) and the independent neurological consultant."

More from Maiocco: an Alex Smith transcript. Smith: "They brought a lot of pressure, especially on third down. They were at home. We anticipated that. We knew they were going to be aggressive with us. That's on all of us. We all have to be better. We weren't good enough today versus pressure at all."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says the nullified fake field goal try was a killer for the 49ers, according to tackle Alex Boone.

Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle writes off the 49ers' defeat as a post-clinching letdown. Knapp: "These things happen in the NFL. The Saints somehow lost to St. Louis earlier this year. In advance of the playoffs, the 49ers probably needed painful reminders of their vulnerabilities. Losing to an elite Baltimore team two weeks ago forced them to confront some shortcomings, but the Cardinals delivered a bracing slap in the face." Noted: The Cardinals played much better than the Rams have been playing, in my view. And I still have no idea how the Saints lost to St. Louis.

Kevin Lynch of the San Francisco Chronicle says the 49ers have regressed. Lynch: "Not only has the team not adjusted, they’ve regressed. A hamstring strain to right guard Adam Snyder and a sprained ankle to right tackle Anthony Davis has left them exposed on the right side. Teams have discovered they can disrupt the offense with blitzes off the right, both in the run and the pass. Additionally, this team is getting tired. Freddie P. Soft is a galvanizing metaphor for averting complacency. But what this team hasn’t done is sidestep Billy T. Burnout. The 49ers, particularly on defense, are tired."

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle looks into why Frank Gore carried only 10 times against the Cardinals. Noted: Jim Harbaugh indicated during his postgame comments that the team went into the game anticipating additional passes. The game plan was more pass-oriented. Branch: "Yes it was, somewhat. It was to throw the ball more often."