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Niners' season, jobs might hinge on game vs. Seahawks

SANTA CLARA, Calif. -- Alex Smith is playing to keep the San Francisco 49ers' slim postseason hopes alive, and he's playing for a job in 2011.

On Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Smith will be back behind center for the 49ers after a five-game absence in which he was both hurt and healthy. This upcoming stretch could be the last hurrah with San Francisco for the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick. He will become a free agent after this season and likely will move on to another team.

"Those are things that are out there, no question," Smith said Wednesday of his NFL future. "Those are things you continually try to push to the back of your mind. ... I'm not thinking about that, honestly. I'm thinking about Seattle. We're in a playoff mentality. This is a must-win game. I'm getting the call and that's all I'm thinking about."

Coach Mike Singletary told Smith on Monday that he would be the starter again for the 49ers (4-8), who face a must-win game against the division rival Seahawks. Seattle whipped the Niners 31-6 in the teams' season opener and now could all but eliminate San Francisco from playoff contention with a victory Sunday.

This marked the first time Smith lost the job during a season when healthy, having initially been replaced by Troy Smith after separating his non-throwing left shoulder Oct. 24 at Carolina. Yet Alex Smith has been the backup before after losing a quarterback competition in training camp, like in 2009 when Shaun Hill was named starter. Smith then took over for the demoted -- and now departed -- Hill at halftime at Houston in San Francisco's seventh game last year.

Singletary insisted Alex Smith gives the 49ers the best chance to win, because they can open up the playbook completely -- something they couldn't do with Troy Smith because he didn't arrive until September. The first thing Alex Smith asked Singletary when told he would start again: why right now, and not last week? San Francisco lost 34-16 at Green Bay.

"I didn't get into all the stuff from previous weeks but it was definitely my first question, 'What's changed?' "Alex Smith said. "That was definitely something that was on my mind and he made it very clear that was his thinking -- that we're going into this game and I gave us the best opportunity. He made the decision, I'm going to get ready to play. We're all going to get ready to go play."

Alex Smith is 17-30 as a starter for San Francisco, which hasn't had a winning season since 2002 and is in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the eighth consecutive year.

Smith failed to get his team in the end zone in that loss at Seattle in the season opener. The 49ers wound up losing four more games after that for their worst start since losing seven in a row to begin a 2-14 season in 1979 -- in the late Bill Walsh's first year as coach.

Considering the way his career has gone, with all the highs and the lows, Smith has never been one to take anything for granted. He appreciates this second chance he's getting Sunday.

He began this season as the starter for the first time since a Monday night opener in 2007. But he got hurt in Game 4 that year and missed nearly a month, then made only three more starts the rest of the way before sitting out injured for all of 2008.

Smith re-injured his surgically repaired throwing shoulder a few days before the '08 season opener. He was set to back up J.T. O'Sullivan. Then he began last year as the No. 2 quarterback behind Hill only to take the job.

It was a big chance for Smith to resurrect his career. Now, he has another shot. This recent stretch as a backup wasn't an easy time for him.

Smith is nearing the end of the two-year deal he restructured in March 2009 that sharply reduced his base salary.

"It's been a lot of ups and downs. The thing that I've learned, especially in the last few years, is it's a roller coaster for a lot of guys," Smith said. "Obviously being a No. 1 pick you get a little more attention. If you're mentally strong and you can push through things and deal with the things that come with the position, those are the guys that have longevity."

Smith's teammates seem to want some continuity at the quarterback spot, while knowing it's not their call to make. At the same time, they realize Singletary is coaching to try to save his job the next few weeks, too.

"Once again, he's back at quarterback," linebacker Patrick Willis said of Alex Smith. "The coaches made that decision. And us as players, we back whoever's under center. He's our quarterback under center, so that's who we're going to go with."

Troy Smith, who went 3-2 as the 49ers' starter, handled the decision professionally.

"There are certain things you can't control and then there are certain things you can control," he said. "As a man and as a quarterback, understand that decisions have to be made for the betterment of the team. There's nothing I can do about it but continue to prepare and get ready for Seattle."

Copyright 2010 by The Associated Press

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