The favored San Francisco 49ers certainly figured they would win at Seattle in Week 1 and make an early statement in their division. Now, they have no choice but to beat the first-place Seahawks in Week 14 to avoid possible elimination from playoff contention.
The Niners were so stunned by their 31-6 season-opening defeat at Seattle that coach Mike Singletary actually thanked first-year Seahawks coach Pete Carroll for the whipping.
"That was a first," Carroll said. "I understand what Mike was thinking."
Singletary acknowledged this week he wasn't sure what else to say in that moment.
"I want very much to tell Pete Carroll, 'Thank you very much for kicking our tails,"' Singletary said at the time. "It was good medicine and we're going to take it. We'll go from there."
They didn't go very fast, however. That game changed the path of San Francisco's season.
The 49ers, unbeaten in the preseason, had been picked to win the NFC West. Instead, their offense failed to reach the end zone in the first of a surprising string of five straight losses to begin the season.
"It was shellshocking. I remember it like it was yesterday," linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "They beat us. ... It may have had some leeches into some of the other games shortly right after that. "As much as you would want to, you can't blame everything on one game."
Singletary took over as coach of the 49ers for the fired Mike Nolan against the Seahawks on Oct. 26, 2008. His uncertain future with the franchise could depend on how he fares this time around. There is speculation Singletary might be fired after this disappointing season by owner John York and his team president son, Jed.
Yet if San Francisco (4-8) finds a way to win against Seattle (6-6) amid yet another week of major change, the 49ers would still be in the thick of the race in the NFC West with a slim chance to end a seven-year playoff drought.
"I think they are a better football team than what we saw early," Seahawks running back Justin Forsett said. "They're clicking now. They've found some things that work. They're running the ball. The defense has been showing up a lot. All their linebackers were always making plays but it seems the secondary is coming up and making plays. They're a good football team."
For the Seahawks, this is a chance to seize their own opportunity in the division. Seattle is tied with St. Louis atop the NFC West standings despite having lost four of six following a 4-2 start.
Quarterback Matt Hasselbeck is one victory from tying Dave Krieg as Seattle's all-time winningest quarterback. Krieg won 70 games from 1981-90.
Last time against San Francisco, Hasselbeck completed 18 of 23 passes for 170 yards and two touchdowns and also ran for a 1-yard score.
"We really didn't have an idea of what they were going to run," Spikes said.
The 49ers hope to be better prepared come Sunday.
Alex Smith is back as San Francisco's starting quarterback after a five-game absence. He separated his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at Carolina and hasn't played since. Singletary decided to make the switch after last Sunday's 34-16 loss at Green Bay -- partly based on Smith's experience and the fact offensive coordinator Mike Johnson can have the full playbook at his disposal in such a critical game.
Troy Smith went 3-2 as the Niners' starter in place of Alex Smith, but was behind on the offense after joining San Francisco in September following his release by Baltimore.
"Alex coming back I'm sure is a boost for them," Carroll said.
Alex Smith can open up the field and, Singletary hopes, get more out of a running game that was all but nonexistent last week without injured star Frank Gore, done for the season with a fractured right hip. His tag-team replacements, Brian Westbrook and rookie Anthony Dixon, ran for 31 and 33 yards, respectively, against the Packers.
Singletary can't afford a repeat of what happened against the Seahawks.
"After the game, to me, I really felt like we went up there to set the tone, and there were a lot of unknowns that we did not know about their team, and there was no way to know them until you get there," he said. "But after the game I just felt that they came out and they executed their offense and their defense. ... They prepared well, and they beat us."
Singletary will coach Sunday without special assistant and secondary coach Johnnie Lynn, who resigned Tuesday for personal reasons.
Alex Smith is determined to make good this time in what might be his final start for San Francisco. Singletary has said Troy Smith still could get another shot. Alex Smith is set to become a free agent after the season and certainly will be elsewhere in 2011.
He would just as soon forget that opener at Seattle.
"A missed opportunity in my mind," he said. "Left a lot out there, didn't execute, so I think kind of a bad taste in our mouth when we all watch it."
This is an Associated Press report.