Okay, first things first. The Buccaneers' record streak of losing years is safe, at least from us. After six straight seasons in hell, we've finally escaped, at least to purgatory. Eight and eight! Huzzah!

(Funny. We used to reserve our celebrations for Super Bowl titles. My, how times have changed....)

But seriously, though; back in August, eight and eight was looking pretty good. Don't forget those bastards at Football Outsiders, who had us pegged for 5.7 wins (and, I guess, 10.3 losses). See? We proved 'em wrong after all!

So when you cite our record as proof that we're on the right track, I should agree with you. In theory, anyway.

You'll make a compelling case. You'll start by saying we weren't a weak eight and eight; we were a strong eight and eight, with the losses (only two by more than 7 points) so much closer than the wins (only two by fewer than 13). Can't argue with you there.

You'll then move on to our defense, which certainly wasn't the problem. Yeah, our yardage ranking dropped from 13th in '08 to 15th this year, thanks of course to our pass D, which ranked in the league's lower half for an astonishing 12th straight season. But a D that's third in sacks, fourth in points allowed, fifth in takeaways, and sixth in rushing yards? That's a good D. A playoff-caliber D, for sure.

And then you'll turn to our offense. You won't try to excuse our atrocious yardage ranking of 27th. You'll admit we gained only 67 yards more than we did in the nightmare season of 2004. But you'll note that Vernon Davis had a great year, Frank Gore and Michael Crabtree had very good years, and Alex Smith had a career year (such as it is).

Like I said, you'll make a compelling case.

And all I'll say is, Nope. Sorry, still not feelin' it.

After the Philly game, I wrote that there went our last chance to prove that our arrow was still pointing up. My thought was that you can establish you're a contender only by playing well against other contenders. Sure, we'd bludgeon the hapless Lions and Rams, but what on earth would that prove?

Well, turns out I was wrong. You can prove you're a contender not just by playing well against other contenders; you can prove it too by crushing those hapless dregs. I'd taken for granted we'd do so, and I was all prepared to dismiss it.

But against those hapless dregs, we looked as bad as we'd looked all year, and there's nothing we can dismiss about that.

The Rams and Lions are the two worst teams in the league. That's not subjective opinion; they'll pick one and two in April's draft. And if you add together the first halves of our games, the total score is this: Niners six, Rams and Lions six.

Please spare me that we blew 'em out in the second halves. The Niners are chronically underprepared, and I don't see a reason to think that'll change.

Let's have some fun. Match the dismal first-half performance with the opponent we were facing.

1) 50 yards, three first-downs
2) 57 yards, one first-down
3) 52 yards, four first-downs

a) Houston (week 7)
b) Green Bay (week 11)
c) St. Louis (week 17)

Everyone says that Mike Singletary's greatest coaching attribute is his ability to motivate. I've written it several times myself. Hey, if you go to Google and type "mike singletary mo," Suggest will spit out "mike singletary motivational speaker." (Though it's worth noting, if you type "mike singletary pu," you'll get "mike singletary pulls his pants down.") But after his first full season as motivator-in-chief, I wonder whether it makes any difference.

Okay, I'll assume he gets credit for Davis's rise. And maybe some of those defensive stats too. But seeing how our offense stumbled out of the gate, week after week all the way to the end, there are only two options. One, Singletary didn't motivate 'em, or two, he did motivate 'em, and it just didn't matter. I lean toward option two. After all, as Bill Walsh said, "Everybody in the NFL is intense. The difference is who's prepared and who isn't."

So maybe the Niners were motivated. But sure as hell they weren't prepared. Tell you what: give me preparation, and go motivate yourself. (By the way, it's 1-a, 2-b, 3-c.)

Of course, it's hard to be prepared when your offensive identity is different every week. I really thought we were done with this nonsense. In the middle of the season, we threw away game after game by going run-first until it was too late. After then going pass-first (and sometimes pass-only) with varying degrees of success, we achieved perfect balance in week 14.

And finally, looking to end it by blowing out a hopeless opponent, aiming to serve notice that next year is ours, we're back where we started. Just listen to Smith's explanation of the game:

"I think in the first half we were a little more run-first: run on first and second downs and throw on third. In the second half, I think that changed quite a bit. There was a little more balance. We threw the ball a little more on first and second downs. That's what I noticed."

I noticed it too, Alex. After all we've been through, I just couldn't believe it. Fortunately, this time, we won the game anyway, and thus we arrived at this mystical place.

Eight and eight. It's a non-losing season, and really, it's welcome. But proof that we're on the right track? Proof that next year is ours to be had?

Nope. Sorry, still not feelin' it.