Here's what we know.

We know that for the seventh straight year, the playoffs will go on without us. And we know that nevertheless, Mike Singletary and Scot McCloughan will stay in their jobs. (I've accepted that, remember....)

But really, that's about it. And it's what we don't know that's so troubling.

If you don't make the playoffs, what you want is proof that you're headed there. You want proof that you're still on the rise. Now with the Eagles in our way, we weren't going to the playoffs, kids; no logical thesis suggested we'd win. But with only the Lions and Rams ahead, this was our last chance to show what we've got. To show that our arrow is still pointing up.

And now that it's over, the worst news of all: we haven't the slightest idea.

Oh sure, we made it a game. We even were six yards away from the lead until Delanie Walker gave it away, another installment of red-zone hysterics. Our defense then backpedaled 94 yards, and then that was pretty much it. True, by the fourth quarter we'd climbed to a touchdown behind; but on a third down at the Philly 19, Donovan McNabb dropped back, made himself a sandwich, hit DeSean Jackson for 59 yards, and then that was pretty much it.

So it's not like we proved that we couldn't compete. But proof that our arrow is still pointing up?

Maybe it is, and maybe it isn't.

After taking a step back against Arizona, New Alex answered by taking two more. Unable to gain even five yards per pass, he put up three picks and a 42 rating. He continued to struggle to keep drives alive, with third-down conversions on oh-for-11. And perhaps most disturbingly, Old Alex's signature play—the roll right and heave out of bounds—made a graphic and horrid return.

Singletary says "I don't have any questions" of Smith as our long-term QB. That of course is a lie. But which is worse? Not knowing yet he's the guy, or not knowing yet that he's not? And we don't know he's not, and the reason we don't is that horrible offensive line. Be fair and consider the rush that he faced every time that he dropped back to throw. Now compare, if you will, the "rush" that was faced by McNabb.

It couldn't be clearer: there was one professional offensive line, and it certainly wasn't the Niners'. So there is one more thing we know: we need a new line, especially an entire right side. But then if we got one—and that's a big if—then would Smith prove he's the guy?

The greatest failure of 2009 is we simply don't have any clue.

And if only the doubt ended there. At receiver, it's easy to get excited about the lawyers at Crabtree, Morgan, Davis & Hill. But it's odd. Two of those guys were top-10 picks, and something still seems to be missing. I mean, did you see DeSean Jackson's pure vertical speed?! Needless to say, we don't have that guy; instead, we've got Kentwan Balmer and Chilo Rachal. To have an elite offense, though, don't we have a need for that speed?

And speaking of Jackson, he'd also have squelched what perhaps is our achiest need, and actually here is a fourth thing we know: you might not have noticed, but God do we need a returner. I mean seriously; if your punt returner loses five yards but manages not to fumble, and if you respond by cheering madly, you must be a fan of the Niners.

So not to rub it in, but just to sum up. Jackson would've satisfied two needs. Instead, McCloughan drafted two guys who collectively satisfy no needs. After watching Jackson run wild through our secondary, methinks 'ol Scot polished off that emergency bottle of hooch.

Let's get back to business, though, and talk about the defense. In successive weeks, this defense faces two division leaders with two high-powered Os. In the first week, the rush is relentless, collecting four sacks, and the coverage is solid, collecting two picks. In the second week, the rush is "nonexistent" (remember that quote from preseason week one?), and the DBs look like they're stuck in cement.

Is this a good D capable of a bad day? Or a bad D capable of a good day? Our fate next year will depend on the answer. An answer that nobody knows.

For a while now, we've been a sexy "next year's" pick. On the eve of the '07 season, one national writer predicted we'd go to the Super Bowl. For this season, Sports Illustrated named us the NFC team most likely to make "a Cardinal-like" rise. Each seemed only natural; the euphoria in '06 in Denver was matched only by the delirium on the removal of Singletary's "interim" tag.

This'll be different. Sure, we'll beat the Lions and Rams—at least we'd better—and eight-and-eight will be nice. But we shouldn't expect to be anyone's "next year's" pick. Those picks are reserved for the "clear" up-and-comers, the teams you could swear are right there at the cusp.

The Niners, though? Admit it. None of us know where we are.

After all the frustration we've suffered this year, the best consolation would be knowing we're there, knowing the pieces are largely in place, knowing we've got all the answers.

The worst news of all, the season is done, and all that we're left with are questions.