Mailbag: 49ers not a playoff-caliber team?

Posted by ESPN.com's Mike Sando

Johnny from Ft. Knox, Ky., writes: Sando, you said it, not me. Just remember you said the 49ers are not a championship team, which I agree with, but you also said they are not a playoff team, which I don't agree with. Being in the division we're in, what happens if the Cardinals lose to Carolina and 49ers beat Indy? Both didn't do what they were supposed to, but the 49ers are only one game behind. Are you really ready to count SF out or are you now sold on Arizona as you were on Seattle before SF crushed those thoughts! Thank you for your opinion!

Mike Sando: Hold on a minute. I said the 49ers are not a championship team or even a playoff team, most likely. The "most likely" part accounts for the unexpected. Expectations change if key players get hurt, for example. Right now, it's unlikely the 49ers will be a playoff team, in my view. If the Panthers beat the Cardinals and the 49ers beat the Colts? Now there's a teaser bet Vegas would love to take. If that happens, my expectations will prove incorrect.

I was never "sold" on Seattle, that's for sure, and subsequent injuries have further diminished the Seahawks' chances. I framed every offseason discussion about the Seahawks around how many games Matt Hasselbeck, Walter Jones and Patrick Kerney would play at a high level. Arizona was my pick to win the division. The 49ers were a team I saw likely to finish 7-9 or 8-8, with a chance to win the division. Problems on the offensive line have diminished those chances, in my view.

Josh from Richmond, Calif., writes: Mike, I was looking at some of the other ESPN divisional blogs and it struck me that most divisions have HUGE division rivals with a venomous fan base towards each other. In the NFC North we have the Vikings and Packers, NFC East we have the Giants and Eagles, AFC West we have the Raiders and Broncos. I wouldn't say the NFC West teams and fans like each other per se, but there's definitely not a comparable animosity. Why do you think that is? St Louis' distance? Arizona's history mediocre history? Seattle's switch from the AFC to the NFC? San Francisco's most recent rival was the Cowboys, dating back to the 1980s. Shed some light.

Mike Sando: The Rams and 49ers had a pretty good rivalry, but any geographic element was lost when the Rams moved to St. Louis. The Seahawks are new to the division, so their rivalries with the AFC West teams dried up. The Cardinals were part of the NFC East, so they do not have long-standing rivalries with NFC West teams.

Overall, though, I think it helps for multiple teams within a division to be good at the same time. The Rams and Seahawks had the makings of a rivalry, but then St. Louis fell off the map. The 49ers were horrible when the Seahawks were good. The Cardinals have gotten good these last two seasons, but the Seahawks have fallen off and the 49ers haven't had a winning record in years.

Chris from Phoenix writes: Hey, Sando. Continued compliments for your outstanding blog. Quick question: Was the Packers-Vikings game always suppossed to be at its current time slot? While it's obviously a very intriguing game to watch (to me included), I'll be in Glendale for the Cards game. Blackout or no blackout, two of OUR OWN CARDINAL WRITERS have debated the benefits of a blackout so our 'football town' would be able to watch Packers-Vikes!!!! Granted, Arizona transplants are prevalant, but shouldnt this town, including its writers, take a more pro-sellout approach for OUR Cards? And they wonder why we need extentions.

Mike Sando: I think people expect their columnists to share their true feelings. I have not seen anyone come out calling for a blackout. Bob McManaman of the Arizona Republic raised the subject toward the bottom of a recent story. Reporters aren't obligated to promote the home teams. If the Cardinals cannot sell out after beating the Giants on national TV, we're free to draw conclusions about any number of things: the fan base in Arizona, the local economy, the manner in which the team has connected with the community, etc.

The good news for home-bound Cardinals fans in Arizona? The Panthers-Cardinals game sold enough tickets to avoid a local blackout.

Gio from Los Angeles writes: Hey Mike, I really enjoy and look forward to your blog daily. How much more (or less) do you think my 49ers will use Michael Crabtree this weekend against the Colts secondary? And how do you think the 49ers' secondary will match up against Reggie Wayne and the rest of their air attack?

Mike Sando: Thanks, Gio. Crabtree played all but a handful of snaps in Week 7 and I would expect that level of playing time to continue. The 49ers should be in better position to feature Crabtree more deliberately now that Smith and Crabtree have worked together another week. I really liked what Crabtree showed last week, enough to grab him for my Gridiron Challenge fantasy team when I needed a lower-cost alternative at wide receiver.

Colby from San Diego writes: So, the Hawks need a leader in the middle of their defense now with Lofa Tatupu out. Has anybody picked up the phone and called Derrick Brooks?

Mike Sando: I asked the Seahawks about Brooks way back in March and did not get the feeling they were going to head in that direction. David Hawthorne has subsequently shown enough to get a long look at middle linebacker, I think.

Ken from Flagstaff writes: Hey, Mike, Love your work. My question is on the Cardinals' 'improved" defense. Do you think that their improvement is due to the slight scheme change and improved individual play or does it have to do with the offense sustaining longer drives? It seems like the offense hasn't had the big plays that they did last year. I havent look at the time of possession this compared to last year but it seems like the games they have won, the defense has been able to rest a bit between their times on the field.

Mike Sando: Interesting theory. The Arizona offense possessed the ball quite effectively during the Cardinals' 7-3 start last season. The Cardinals possessed the ball for nearly 33 minutes on average in their nine regular-season victories, up from 26:44 in their defeats. The figures this season are 32:37 for victories and 28:20 for defeats.

Cassius from Minot, N.D., writes: Do you ever find it hard to stay objective? There's got to be times when you find yourself rooting for one team or another in the division. I've noticed that you catch crap sometimes from people that think you're favoring one team or another. As a Hawks fan, I've definitely felt that way. I don't think it's any coincidence that I find myself feeling that way when they're losing. I was just curious if you ever have to fight off subjectivity. Thanks and keep up the good, unbiased work.

Mike Sando: Thanks. None of us is truly objective. It's true that I do not particularly care which teams win games. I would prefer NFC West teams to be competitive. I'd rather have all four teams have winning seasons than all four teams have losing seasons. The former scenario would make the blog more compelling.

You're absolutely right about fans' feelings changing when their teams lose. Some people do not want to hear about their teams' problems. Some Seattle fans I've heard from think I've been harder on the team over the last couple seasons. They are right. The results on the field dictate as much.

Rik from Melbourne Beach, Fla., writes: Everyone (MEDIA) including yourself have been slamming Marc Bulger for his bad play, but all of them including yourself forget about the offensive line that was bad and the sad state of Rams recievers. Any chance you could ask some REAL football people (coaches, NFL Scouts, and GMs) what they think of Bulger and why he is struggling now after being a top quarterback two-plus years ago? Thanks.

Mike Sando: Bulger is struggling because the supporting cast around him has dropped off considerably in recent seasons. Everyone knows that. Jim Haslett knew it. Guy named Sando knew it. Bulger himself was guardedly optimistic.

Felix from Mexico writes: Mike, thank you for all the info in your blog. I know that Rams are not even close to be a competitive team, even in the NFC West. Nevertheless, I think the schedule has been tough for them. If you check the win-loss results of the teams they have faced at the moment of the game, they have faced teams with a 15-5 record. At this moment they have played home games against teams with a combined of 16-3, the road games they have faced teams with a combined of 10-15, so that is why they have been at least closer to win on the road in two of the four games.

The rest of the schedule doesn't look easier. At home they will face teams with overall record of 19-12, where Seattle is the only team with losing record. On the road they will face teams with 8-16 record. The main problem of the Rams is the lack of depth, but somehow this year's schedule hasn't help Spag either. What do you think?

Mike Sando: "Rams' schedule appears brutal" was the headline on the mailbag from Aug. 27. And in April I wrote, "The Rams will have to be vastly improved to win more than a couple of games during the first half of the season." I pointed to a possible 0-7 record when revisiting the schedule in September. This is a tough schedule and the Rams are paying the price.

Harold from Columbia, Mo., writes: Mike, taking a look at Carolina's defensive numbers, they are top 3 or 4 in yards allowed and not so good against the run. What really stands out is their takeaways. They have a minus-14 takeaway margin, which is by far and away league worst, and have forced seven turnovers. The Cardinals on the other hand have forced 12 takeaways and are even overall. Carolina is poor in scoring defense, but it also seems to be indicative of how many turnovers they are giving up and how it is affecting them. As we know, this is a turnover league. If they can keep the turnovers low, then they can play with the Cardinals. I just don't want to take them lightly. Avenging that nightmare in Carolina is a prime motivator to an NFL team. This could be a good game.

Mike Sando: It's natural for a good fan to be worried, but I think the Panthers have too many problems to be focusing on revenge. I also think the Cardinals will force turnovers in this game.