SAN FRANCISCO (AP) - Mike Singletary helped keep his job as coach in San Francisco with a strong finish a year ago after the 49ers had been eliminated from playoff contention.
Alex Smith is looking to do the same to solidify his role as starting quarterback heading into the 2010 season.
With San Francisco's playoff dreams shattered in snowy Philadelphia a week ago, the focus for these final two weeks, beginning Sunday against the Detroit Lions (2-14), is on avoiding a seventh straight losing season and preparing for next year.
Singletary has had praise for Smith in recent weeks, but is not yet ready to hand him the reins for next season. Singletary said he wants to make it through these final two games before deciding on next season.
Smith agrees with his coach's position that there's no rush.
"Absolutely. At this point, why? There are two more games left, there's no point now," Smith said. "Let's focus on this next week. We've still got a lot to do in these two weeks. It starts with this next one. No point in getting into that. There's plenty of time in the offseason."
But in many ways, the offseason has already started for the 49ers (6-8). San Francisco is assured its seventh straight season without a playoff berth, a frustrating stretch for a franchise that had grown accustomed to success while winning five Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and '90s.
The key to those teams was the stellar play at quarterback by Joe Montana and Steve Young. But ever since Jeff Garcia left town following the 2003 season, the Niners have been searching for a quarterback.
They hoped they found the successor when they drafted Smith first overall in 2005. He struggled as a rookie, showed promise in his second year and then was derailed by injuries the past two seasons.
He replaced Shaun Hill midway through the sixth game this season and has shown flashes of living up to his draft billing, but not consistently enough.
"When I look at Alex, I think each week he's continued to grow," Singletary said. "He's done a lot in a short amount of time. There are some quarterbacks around the league, and I'm not going to get into that, but that's been playing a while, and I don't think as efficient as he is right now. ... I'm comfortable with what I'm seeing right now."
Smith has completed a career-high 60.1 percent of his passes, with 16 touchdowns, 12 interceptions and a 78.5 passer rating that is the best of his five years. Smith's teammates see a big difference in his demeanor as well, noticing a more confident player.
"Just the leadership. He's more in charge in the huddle," tight end Delanie Walker said. "When he calls his plays, you can hear that he's passionate and really into it. ... That's one thing that shows up more this year than the last few years he was a quarterback."
The Lions know who their quarterback will be next season, although he won't be playing this week. Rookie Matthew Stafford is out with a separated left shoulder, clearing the way for Drew Stanton to make his first career start.
"It was a nice early Christmas present - the best one I've had," Stanton said after receiving the news Wednesday.
Stanton replaced an ineffective Daunte Culpepper in the second half of last week's 31-24 loss to Arizona. Stanton was just 10 for 19 for 72 yards and an interception, but the Lions' offense scored 17 points with him in the game, including a 1-yard run that tied it with 3:48 to go. That was enough to earn him a full week as the starter.
"The stats didn't bear out, but he moved the team and he scored points," coach Jim Schwartz said. "The one thing is, Drew in his career has never gone through a week as the starter, getting the starter reps and having that time to prepare. I think he was able to do some things not getting a lot of reps in the past. We need him to get the reps and be able to deliver for a full game what he's done in sort of mop-up duty in the past."
Stanton has thrown just 47 passes since being drafted in the second round out of Michigan State in 2007. He has completed 51.1 percent of his passes with one touchdown and three interceptions.
He wants to use this opportunity to show he belongs in the league, wherever that may be.
"I'm well aware of the situation I'm in here," Stanton said. "Matthew's the future. There's no doubt about that. But if I can stay around here and prove to these guys that I can play in this league, or also look at it from the standpoint that it's a resume that I'm putting out there every time I step on the field, and there's 31 other teams that could be in the market for a quarterback at any given time. I take that approach and that's why all the hard work's put in."
AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this story.