SANTA CLARA This year's 49ers are deeper, more talented and have more cohesion than their 2011 counterparts. But are they a better team?
Seventeen weeks into the season, the answer still is cloudy. The 49ers are 16 1/2 -point favorites over the Arizona Cardinals, one of their biggest margins in 15 years and an indication of how powerful this squad can be.
The 49ers' 2012 season has been highlighted by a 45-3 romp over Buffalo, in which they became the first team in NFL history to gain more than 300 yards on the ground and through the air, as well as road wins against playoff-bound Green Bay and New England.
But the two most lopsided losses of the Jim Harbaugh era didn't occur last year when the young 49ers were forced to congeal on the run following the NFL lockout. They happened this season, and include a psyche-shaking 42-13 loss to Seattle last week.
Last year's 49ers were known for their pluck and for come-from-behind wins.
The current team has stood out for its colossal swings from week to week.
A year ago, the 49ers went on an eight-game winning streak and secured a division title the week after Thanksgiving. This year's team has gone on a series of two-game winning streaks followed by a flat effort in a loss (the 26-3 home loss to the Giants, for example) or a tie.
Only a win today or a loss by the Seahawks would earn the 49ers their second straight NFC West crown.
Asked to explain the Dr. Jekyll-and-Mr. Hyde nature of the team, linebacker Patrick Willis said it merely was "reality."
"It's like gravity what goes up must come down," he said. " You look at other teams, whether they have a great offense or a good defense. There are games where you watch film on them where it's like, 'Man, they didn't play that well.' "
Like last year, the 49ers need a Week 17 win today to secure the No. 2 seed and a playoff bye they badly need to rest several injured starters, primarily right defensive end Justin Smith who is recovering from a partial tear to his triceps tendon.
This year they need help. The 49ers only would get the bye with a win over the Cardinals who will start their fourth different quarterback this season, Brian Hoyer combined with a home win by the Vikings (9-6) over the Packers (11-4).
Smith was the 49ers' best playoff performer last season, and it's becoming clear even if he is back on the field for the playoffs he won't be 100 percent healthy.
Willis already is a team leader, but he appears to be taking a more active and vocal role in the locker room with Smith out. Willis, voted to his sixth straight Pro Bowl, spoke for a long time after Sunday's loss and during the week.
"We have a great defense. I really, truly believe that," Willis said. "And a few times we've gone out there and really haven't displayed that. When you truly have what we have on our defense, we should be able to go out and do that each time. And from this point on starting from this Sunday to whenever it's over for us we have to make sure we go out there and do that on a consistent basis. We just have to do that. We have to."
Perhaps the best lesson comes from the last two Super Bowl champions, the Packers and the New York Giants, who had to win in Week 17 of their respective championship seasons and who used those victories to launch them into the postseason.
The 49ers don't need a win to make the playoffs. What they need is to regain their momentum and swagger after last week's blowout in Seattle.
"Momentum is great, but it's tenuous," defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "You can get it back real fast and you can lose it real fast. So, you've just got to keep playing."