Here we go again. Looking ahead to another cataclysmic encounter with the Green Bay Packers that will come to define at least the first half of the San Francisco 49ers' season. Maybe this time they'll get it right on Nov. 1 on the unfrozen tundra of Lambeau Field.

The 49ers are mired in a serious slump against the Pack. Four losses in the past four games, three of them season-enders in the playoffs and only one of them close. Not even hated Dallas managed to hang four straight losses on the 49ers.Even more distressing, San Francisco has never beaten the Walrus, Mike Holmgren, the man who would be King of Wisconsin and maybe already is. He learns all he knows about coaching from the 49ers, then leaves and beats on them like they were so many pinatas and he's not wearing a blindfold.

We bring up the Green Bay game six weeks hence because that might be the next time the 49ers are seriously challenged. Maybe the only time all season, with the possible exception of Dec. 20 at New England with the cold and slush and snow flurries and Pete Carroll's veins popping out of his neck and slacker quarterback Drew Bledsoe flinging passes that elude the gloved fingers of San Francisco defenders and those fans way up yonder in the upper right corner of the country yammering along in the worst-sounding regional dialect in America, or have you never heard Tommy Heinsohn on the teevee whining how the Cavaliers have got to "hit the bohhrds"?

It's enough to make a man wish for molten wax to be poured in his ears to spare himself the agony of listening to the former Celtics coach drag the language into the gutter of some south Boston street and stomp on it with size 13 dress shoes.

After Monday night's methodical dispatching of the Washington Redskins, the 49ers were left to wonder how good they really are, or can be. Veterans cautioned against making too much out of a Week 2 rout, but the 'Skins supposedly were improved over last season, especially on defense with 640 pounds of defensive tackle talent in Dana Stubblefield and Big Daddy Wilkinson.

Steve Young said he had expected a dogfight, but as the game played out, the Redskins showed much more dog than fight.

Up next, after a healing bye week, is Atlanta. The Falcons are similarly 2-0 and they finished the 1997 season strongly but, hey now, these are the Falcons.

A game at 0-2 Buffalo with 5-foot-nothing QB Doug Flutie follows, then it's on to 2-0 New Orleans at the Superdome on Young's 37th birthday. Are the Saints for real? Are those really women in the strip joints on Bourbon Street? Who knows? That's why you part the dingy velvet curtains and enter the smoky realm of fantasy, to find out.

Indianapolis is next, on Oct. 18. You like Peyton Manning, like him for staying in school all four years, wish him a long and fruitful career, hope he has more success than his kind and cursed father, Archie.

That being said, do you really expect a rookie to come into Candlestick and beat the 49ers?

After that it's a trip to St. Louis and the annual boat show in the Trans World Dome. The 49ers will take away best of show while the Rams will be left with a leaky dinghy.

That brings up Green Bay. How do the 49ers stack up against the Pack this time? They are seemingly better prepared than previous years. Young is off to a raging start. Marquez Pope should be rounding into shape after missing several weeks with a bad back. Greg Clark will be back to lend crushing blocks from his tight end position.

On the Green Bay side, Dorsey Levens may still be out after breaking a bone in his right leg and spraining his right ankle on Sunday. Without him the Packers are far less formidable. Despite all the fancy passing and exotic zone blitzing in the NFL today, a team with a stud at running back still has an advantage.

And look who is leading the league in rushing after two weeks. It's little dog Garrison Hearst, whose specialty is hiding behind Kevin Gogan's considerable backside while he skirts between the tackles for good yardage. By Nov. 1 Jerry Rice should be fully assimilated into the offense, his embarrassing drop against the Redskins long forgotten and his left knee no longer a source of worry.

Assuming the offense stays the course, it will be up to San Francisco's defense to make a statement against Green Bay. It's been shaky through two games, letting Glenn Foley pass at will in the opener and even allowing Trent Green to have his moments on Monday night while Terry Allen averaged 5.2 yards per carry against a defensive front that misses Stubblefield playing alongside Bryant Young.

This could be the start of something good for the 49ers with Young as masterful as ever, Rice playing himself into what he was before Warren Sapp corkscrewed him into the ground, Hearst scampering through the line like a squirrel with the last acorn of the season and a defense that will surely get better with time.

It's only a start, though. The halfway point comes Nov. 1.