NEW ORLEANS — Forget the Seahawks. Just forget them.


A few weeks ago, impressed with 49ers' greatness, I wrote this season would come down to the Dec. 8 game between Seattle and San Francisco at Candlestick Park. I wrote the entire season for both teams pointed toward that game. The victor would take the NFC West and the loser would be relegated to the hard world of the wild card, starting with a road game.

Well, the Seattle ship has sailed.

The 49ers will not win the NFC West. They will not win enough games to pass the Seahawks, and the Seahawks will not lose enough games for the Niners to make a meaningful challenge. I'm saying the Dec. 8 game won't be a marquee moment. It will be a footnote.

It's time to recalibrate the entire season. The 49ers currently are in the sixth and final wild-card position. That could improve. That could get worse. And that means today's game in New Orleans against the resurgent Saints is San Francisco's most important game of the season. It assumes the status the Seattle game had and no longer has. Today's game is huge.

I believe the Saints will defeat the 49ers. But I don't have a telescope to the future and I could be wrong. Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have surprised me — and you — before. They are resilient.

And now I want to praise Harbaugh. He does not sweat a big game like today's, a season-defining game — because that's what today's game is, season defining. He sees today's game as an opportunity, as a chance and, because he is a competitor to the max, he loves a season-defining game.

Question: What will this game define?

Let's start with Harbaugh himself. Let's state a truism. This game is on his shoulders. Looked at a certain way, this game defines his quality as a coach, determines if he's really elite, or if he merely is very good and received a ton of praise way too early in his career.

We can't help noticing he has not beaten a good team this season. Except for the Packers. Harbaugh could beat the Packers standing on his head. Harbaugh could beat the Packers lying in bed and reading the newspaper. Harbaugh could beat the Packers snoozing on the beach.

The Packers are an illusion. They are overrated and poorly coached and they never ever understand what the 49ers' offense is doing. They are the Niners' chumps. Got that?

But when Harbaugh faced reasonably good opposition, he flopped against the Seahawks, Colts and Panthers. The Panthers not only beat the 49ers, they beat up the 49ers, were tougher, handed out concussions like pink slips.

Harbaugh needs to show he can beat an elite team like the Saints. The 49ers need to show they can beat an elite team. Otherwise, Harbaugh and the Niners lose their standing as elite, lose the adjective entirely. Delete "elite."

And there is the shadow of doubt. Harbaugh loves to erase a shadow, does not tolerate a shadow. Let's see him erase.

He has said his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, is elite and he's said his team has good wide receivers. We take him at his word. If we follow his logic to its conclusion, the responsibility falls squarely on him. If the players are good enough, the coach must use them correctly. The coach must let his players succeed, must set the stage for success. Can Harbaugh do that in that loud delirium of the Superdome? If he fails, if his team loses, the 49ers' record falls to 6-4. Undignified.

A word on Kaepernick. Harbaugh is not using him correctly. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman is not using him correctly. Roman is an overrated offensive coordinator — Harbaugh called him brilliant — but Roman and others create the game plan following Harbaugh's directions.

Don't blame Kaepernick if Harbaugh and Roman don't coach him right. Harbaugh dumped — yes dumped — Alex Smith for Kaepernick because Harbaugh determined, correctly, that Kaepernick is the better quarterback. No quarrel with Harbaugh there.

Better quarterback means Kaepernick has a better arm, is more daring, runs like a halfback, poses more problems for defenses just by being himself. Harbaugh preferred Kaepernick to Smith for those very reasons — for Kaepernick's prodigious gifts.

It feels like Harbaugh doesn't value those gifts anymore. Or forgot about the gifts. Or doesn't know how to use the gifts.

Poor Harbaugh.

He has transformed Kaepernick into a drop-back pocket passer who tries to survey the field, methodically go through his progressions like Joe Montana and then throw the ball. There is almost no improvisation or running by the quarterback or rollout passing — stuff Kaepernick does brilliantly.

I'll tell you what there is. There is a stodgy, unimaginative, safety-first offense that Alex Smith runs and excels at. Smith is a better quarterback than Kaepernick before the snap. He's had more time to learn. He reads defenses better. He changes plays better. Even after the snap, he sees the field better. But he does not run or throw better than Kaepernick.

So get this, Harbaugh is asking Kaepernick to be Smith. Harbaugh is "Smithing" Kaepernick, requiring Kaepernick to do things he's not good at, things the other guy is really good at. It's a mind blower all around. If this offense — nine points against Carolina — is what Harbaugh really wanted, he should have kept Smith.

Maybe after this season — after there's no Super Bowl — Harbaugh can trade Kaepernick to Kansas City for Smith. If it's Smith Harbaugh truly loves, he deserves the real thing.

Or better yet, create the right game plan for Kaepernick right now, today. Dazzle us with the game plan. Dazzle the Saints. Set Kaepernick free.

(For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.)