SANTA CLARA — No surprise. The San Francisco 49ers and Seattle Seahawks are on a roll as they begin the season’s stretch run with each vying for the NFC West title.
This is how everybody expected this division race to be: Tight and tense until the end. Led by these two rivals.
The reigning NFC champion Niners (6-2) have won two straight division crowns, while Seattle (8-1) captured the West in 2010.
After a long flight home from London last week, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh stayed up for Monday Night Football to watch Seattle sneak out of St. Louis with a 14-9 win.
Yes, this West race is going to get wild in the season’s second half — just as all involved envisioned from Day 1.
“We’ve got a long haul here,” Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said. “We’re just at the halfway point of the season.”
There’s a big circle around that Dec. 8 game when Seattle visits San Francisco for the Seahawks’ final game at Candlestick Park. It’s one that will go a long way in determining the division winner.
The Seahawks whipped the Niners 29-3 in Week 2.
“Same as we knew it was at the beginning,” Harbaugh said. “Arguably the best division in football. It’s very tight at the halfway mark. So, there’s a lot of football to be played. For us, just to keep focusing on what we can do to improve.”
Here are five things to watch for on each division team the rest of the way:
SEAHAWKS SCHEDULE: Both San Francisco and Seattle have beaten the Titans and Texans and lost to the Colts. Yet the Seahawks are entering a tough stretch beginning Sunday at Atlanta, then home against Minnesota and New Orleans before going to San Francisco.
Seattle has won four straight since a 34-28 loss at Indianapolis on Oct. 6 and posted a 4-1 road record overall.
Still, Carroll is hardly ready to guess what might happen. Especially after his team had to rally from a 21-point deficit to beat winless Tampa Bay 27-24 on Sunday.
“It’s the middle of the season so we don’t know. I have no idea,” Carroll said. “You can’t tell anything right now I don’t think. I think everybody is capable of beating everybody else. People are healthy enough that they could put out good games. I think everybody has a chance to have a very successful season in our division. Our teams are tough so we’ll see what happens.”
ROLLING 49ERS: Since losing back-to-back games in Weeks 2 and 3 to the Seahawks and Colts, Harbaugh’s team sure is clicking again during a five-game winning streak — much like during that late-season success that propelled the franchise back to its first Super Bowl in 18 years.
And the 49ers have reinforcements coming for the stretch run. All-Pro linebacker Aldon Smith was activated last week after missing five games while undergoing treatment for substance abuse, and he could play as soon as Sunday against Carolina.
Wide receiver Mario Manningham is back this week, too, and could make an immediate impact. Top 2012 wideout Michael Crabtree was cleared to practice Tuesday and could return from his right Achilles tendon injury soon, too.
San Francisco has scored 30 or more points in all five games during this current unbeaten run, matching a franchise record also accomplished in 1994 and ‘97.
“A lot of positives,” Harbaugh said. “Really a dramatic improvement in terms of playing disciplined, sound technique football.”
CONTENDING ARIZONA: While quarterback Carson Palmer has been plagued by his share of mistakes and inconsistent play — 14 interceptions to 10 touchdown passes — for first-year coach Bruce Arians, he also has had plenty of impressive moments to keep the Cardinals (4-4) in the mix. They are part of the chase going into the second half, and that’s a big deal in itself.
“That’s why you play the game,” Arians said Monday. “We take a short-term look at long goals, and then get back to the process of making sure we win this Sunday and forget about adding things up. We’ll add them up in late December. If we take care of our business daily, then we’ll take care of it Sundays.”
Arizona could shake things up as it ends the season by going to Seattle before hosting the 49ers.
CLOSE CALLS FOR ST. LOUIS: Bruising running back Steven Jackson was the face of the Rams for almost a decade. After Jackson left for Atlanta as a free agent, coach Jeff Fisher envisioned a dynamic, speedy offense that would spread out opponents. That idea has been scrapped and it looks like a typical Fisher team pounding away on the ground, keeping it close although they’ve lost three in a row. Rookie Zac Stacy, a fifth-rounder, is coming off two straight 100-yard games after getting his shot when Daryl Richardson was sidelined with a foot injury.
First-round pick Tavon Austin has yet to make the impact that had been expected and quarterback Sam Bradford is out for the season with a left knee injury. The Rams (3-6) have a strong offensive line but must go on with journeyman Kellen Clemens under center.
“Guys didn’t flinch. We had a big injury,” defensive end Chris Long said. “We haven’t been playing to our standards.”
PREDICTED WINNER: Seahawks.
AP Sports Writers Tim Booth, R.B. Fallstrom and Dave Skretta contributed to this report.
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org