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49ers find motivation in their spoiler role

If you can't make the playoffs, the next best way to gain satisfaction in the NFL this time of year is to wreck somebody else's postseason aspirations.

The 5-8 San Francisco 49ers have been on such a mission after being invigorated by Mike Singletary's promotion from assistant to interim coach following the Oct. 20 firing of Mike Nolan.

In Week 13, the 49ers did major damage to the Bills' postseason hopes by knocking them off in Buffalo. One week later, San Francisco extended the New York Jets' losing streak to two games and further extinguished thoughts of them being legitimate Super Bowl contenders. This Sunday, the 49ers travel to Miami, determined to stop the feel-good story of the Dolphins' incredible turnaround from 1-15 in 2007 to 8-5 so far this season.

"We want to finish what we started -- that's what Coach Singletary always talks to us about," 49ers linebacker Takeo Spikes said. "And with that comes spoiling a lot of teams' chances of getting into the playoffs. If they're in the way, we welcome that with open arms."

Added 49ers center Eric Heitmann: "I don't have any problem playing the spoiler role. It can be gratifying."

It's the only form of gratification that bottom-dwelling teams can get in what's left of their atrocious seasons. The Week 15 schedule offers five other such opportunities:

» The 1-11-1 Bengals are out to extend the fading Washington Redskins' losing streak to three games Sunday in Cincinnati.

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» The 0-13 Detroit Lions have been in spoiler mode all season. They'd like nothing better than to have their first win come Sunday at Indianapolis and, in the process, harm the playoff chances of the 9-4 Colts, who had their five-year streak of winning the AFC South snapped by the Tennessee Titans.

» The 3-10 Oakland Raiders look to deliver a potential knockout punch to the 8-5 New England Patriots on Sunday in Oakland. The Pats barely survived at Seattle last weekend and, after losing quarterback Tom Brady and an ever-growing list of key defensive players to injury, hardly resemble the dominant team of a year ago.

» The 6-7 Buffalo Bills, who need a miracle to make the playoffs, could add to the 8-5 Jets' misery Sunday at the Meadowlands.

» The 4-9 Cleveland Browns would like to trip up the 7-5-1 Eagles, who have revived themselves with a two-game winning streak, Monday night in Philadelphia.

The 49ers, whose season finale is at Washington, can do more than try to ruin the holidays for teams still in the playoff hunt. They can continue to build a compelling case for Singletary to remain their coach beyond this season.

And that would be just fine with the players.

"He has done an incredible job of organizing this team to move forward in a positive direction," Heitmann said.

Said Spikes: "I think the biggest thing that everyone has seen over the past month is that the players have been buying everything that he's been selling. And what he's selling is, in order to be successful, you have to hold each other accountable. That's something he preaches every week, day in and day out.

After all the turmoil in the first half of the season, the 49ers like what they see in front of them.

"I think this team's excited about its future right now," Heitmann said. "We're looking forward to winning these last three games that we have, to a great offseason, and we're looking forward to the future that this team has. We know with the character on this team, with the talent that we have, great things are in store for this organization."

Monday night musings

» I find it hard to believe that Tampa Bay's defense is as bad at making tackles as they were against Carolina. I also find it hard to believe that the likelihood of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin leaving the team after the season to join his son, Lane, at the University of Tennessee had anything to do with the Bucs' defensive players giving such a horrible showing against the run. My sense is that the unit has too many smart, veteran players who are able to avoid such a distraction. Either way, this has the potential to be a serious problem for the Bucs because they face two top-10 rushing offenses in two of their remaining three regular-season games (No. 2 Atlanta on Sunday and No. 10 Oakland in Week 17).

» Beating the Buccaneers did more than put the Panthers alone atop the NFC South. It gave them confidence that the Bucs had stripped away in Week 6 when Tampa Bay pounded Carolina. It gave them confidence that they can run the ball effectively during the nastiest December weather that can be dished out in places such as East Rutherford, N.J., where the Panthers face the Giants in Week 16. It gave them confidence that their defensive front can dominate. It also reinforced the notion that Carolina is a great team at home -- something that hadn't always been true before this season. If the Panthers have any hope of a deep postseason run, they need to do all they can to gain home-field advantage, which likely would require a colossal collapse by the Giants.

Dream team?

The possibility of the Browns making Bill Cowher their coach and Marty Schottenheimer their general manager (or putting him in some sort of key front-office role) is beyond "intriguing," to use the word that Schottenheimer did to describe such a scenario during an interview on Sirius NFL Radio. It conceivably would give the Browns one of the greatest decision-making tandems in the league and a chance to make the sort of dramatic improvement that the Dolphins did from 2007 to this season.

Banged-up Patriots

If the Patriots have, in fact, lost linebacker Tedy Bruschi to a season-ending knee injury, it could be the breaking point for a team that has done a remarkable job of overcoming key injuries. For a defense that already was relying on many backups, losing Bruschi's intelligence and leadership is the sort of blow from which it might not be able to recover. A shoulder injury to nose tackle Vince Wilfork doesn't appear to be as serious, but it's worth monitoring as the team desperately tries to stay in the playoff race.

Broncos running game derailed again

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Speaking of teams that couldn't afford another key injury ... Just when the Denver Broncos showed they could handle success by following their Week 13 victory over the Jets with Sunday's triumph over the Chiefs, they took another hit to their running game. Rookie Peyton Hillis, who had done an exceptional job of bailing out an injury-ravaged position by switching from fullback to tailback, is gone for the season with a torn hamstring. With Selvin Young still easing his way back from a groin injury, the Broncos hope to find help from Tatum Bell, P.J. Pope and rookie Cory Boyd, the latter whom they signed off their practice squad. I know this team has an incredible history of reloading at running back, but the well has to go dry at some point, doesn't it?

Philadelphia reborn

So many of us have been guilty of writing off the Eagles' playoff chances in the past that we should have known better this year. After reaching what looked like rock-bottom with quarterback Donovan McNabb's benching during a lopsided loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Week 12, the Eagles have won two in a row. And in beating the Giants last Sunday, the Eagles not only demonstrated that they can knock off the presumptive best team in the league, they showed how successful they can be with the sort of smash-mouth offense and run-stuffing defense that has worked so well for their NFC East rivals.

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