49ers' title quest faces a huge test

SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Holmgren's latest trip back to his hometown just won't be as much fun.

For the first time in the Seattle Seahawks coach's recent memory, he won't be able to spend a quiet minute with Bill Walsh, his mentor and friend. Instead, he'll lead his club against the San Francisco 49ers on Bill Walsh Field, renamed in memory of the Hall of Fame coach who died of leukemia on July 30.

"Just about every time we played there, Bill and I were able to spend some time together," said Holmgren, who coached under Walsh with the 49ers in the late 1980s.

"I was glad I was able to go to his memorial service and catch up with some of the old guys and his family," Holmgren said. "I always looked for him when I came out onto the field, and he would see me, and we would have a nice chat. So he'll be looking from a little different vantage point."

The Seahawks' annual trip to the Bay Area has other novel characteristics as well. Seattle has lost two straight to the 49ers after winning the clubs' previous six meetings, and San Francisco (2-1) has targeted today's game as a chance to show the Seahawks (2-1) they're no longer in a subdivision of their own atop the NFC West.

The Niners already have division victories over Arizona and St. Louis this season, and a third would set a surprising new tone in a race that's been dominated by the Seahawks clubs led by Shaun Alexander, Matt Hasselbeck and Darrell Jackson -- who's now catching passes for the 49ers after an offseason trade.

Jackson still has ample affection for everyone in Seattle -- well, except general manager Tim Ruskell, who engineered his departure after a contract dispute. Though Jackson portentously cut his long, unruly hair on Wednesday, he claims he'll treat his first meeting with the Seahawks just like another division game.

"It's going to be different to be against the Seahawks, but hopefully we can show Seattle that we're right there with them," said Jackson, who leads the 49ers with 11 catches for 166 yards.

"(Holmgren), that's my guy. He taught me a lot. He drafted me and had the confidence in me to start me seven years. I was one of his little soldiers there. That's always going to be my guy, regardless of bad-mouthing me, good-mouthing me, whatever they did."

The 49ers' two victories this season weren't exactly dominant, and last week's loss to Pittsburgh was discouraging. Coach Mike Nolan has focused his players on the good feelings they still remember from their two victories over Seattle last season.

He cited both wins -- including the Niners' scintillating come-from-behind victory in Seattle last December -- as the best evidence yet that his rebuilding project could yield real results.

"The fact that we're 2-1 tells us that we're getting closer all the time," Nolan said. "It's a huge game, I guess you could say, for both teams. Whatever it means this week is one thing, but down the road it's going to mean even more to one of us, maybe both."

Alex Smith had the most promising game of his career in the Seattle rain last December, throwing two TD passes and running 18 yards for another score in the fourth quarter. Frank Gore also ran wild against the Seahawks, combining for 356 yards in last season's meetings -- including a franchise-record 212 yards rushing in Seattle's last trip to Candlestick.

"They're going to be gunning for us, and whoever does win this game is going to have an early start on the division," Smith said. "It will kind of make a statement ... just like last year, I distinctly remember that game (in Seattle) standing out in my mind, especially the second half."