The San Francisco 49ers were as close as you can get to winning the Super Bowl without winning it this past February. The team had the ball inside the Ravens 10-yard line with over 2 1/2 minutes to go. On 4th and goal, Michael Crabtree may or may not have been held by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith, Colin Kaepernick’s pass fell incomplete, and the 49ers lost Super Bowl XLVII in heartbreaking fashion.
San Francisco continues to progress each season under Jim Harbaugh though. Year 1 ended with an NFC title game loss, year 2 ended with a Super Bowl loss, so the next step for San Francisco is winning a Super Bowl championship in MetLife Stadium come February… right?
Last season, the NFL witnessed the emergence of Colin Kaepernick who took the NFL by storm. Kaepernick, who took over in week 10 for Alex Smith, went 5-2 after being named the starter. In the divisional round against the Falcons, Kaepernick set an NFL postseason record for most rushing yards by a quarterback by going for 181 yards with two touchdowns, and he also threw for a pair of TDs. He won’t be sneaking up on anyone this season, however.
OFFENSE: San Francisco’s offense could be the most explosive in the NFL, but with Michael Crabtree, who was coming off a breakout season in 2012, tearing his Achilles in OTAs and likely out until December, and Mario Manningham not being 100 percent, there are big time question marks at the receiver position.
The 49ers did bring in Anquan Boldin who will be a major help. They signed Austin Collie, who seems to always be battling concussions, but when healthy is a solid slot receiver. The team will be expecting a lot more out of 2012 first round pick AJ Jenkins who hasn’t done anything (he hasn’t even caught a pass, seriously).
Besides the receivers, San Francisco still has Vernon Davis who is arguably the best tight end in football and one of the top running backs in Frank Gore. LaMichael James emerged late last season as a home run threat in the running game. While everyone talks about Kaepernick, the offensive line is the backbone of this 49ers team. Mike Iupati, Anthony Davis (not the basketball player), Joe Staley, and Jonathan Goodwin round out a great O-line. The 5th lineman is Alex Boone who has worked his way up from a practice squad guy to starter and stands at 6’8, 300 pounds. Assuming Kaepernick can handle major expectations, the 49ers offense should be one of the league’s most explosive offenses this season.
DEFENSE: It was a tale of 2 defenses for the 49ers last season. One with Justin Smith in the lineup, and one without him. With him, Aldon Smith was a monster and quarterbacks had little time in the pocket. Once he tore his triceps, quarterbacks all of a sudden had all day to throw and Aldon Smith became a non-factor. Going into his season, Justin Smith looks ready to go which is great news for Aldon Smith and the rest of the 49ers defense. What could be a major concern is the health of star middle linebacker Patrick Willis who fractured his hand during training camp. Willis underwent surgery and should be ready for the start of the season. But if he isn’t, that’s a catastrophic blow to the team.
San Francisco was able to trade up and get LSU safety Eric Reid in the first round to replace Dashon Goldson and signed Nnamdi Asomugha who won’t have to face nearly as much pressure as he did in Philly now playing behind Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown. The success of this defense overall is going to be the pass rush, and if Justin Smith is healthy, look for quarterbacks to be on their backs consistently.
SPECIAL TEAMS: He’s spent his entire 14-year career with the Browns, but Phil Dawson is finally changing colors to join the 49ers. A career 84 percent field goal kicker, Dawson should be a major upgrade over David Akers who kicked it at a 69 percent clip last season. Punter Andy Lee was a first team All-Pro selection last season after signing a 6-year contract extension before last season. For returning kicks and punts, LaMichael James looks to take over that spot for San Francisco this season. Everyone remembers James’ 62-yard kickoff return in last December’s game against the Patriots that led to the winning touchdown. James certainly is a major weapon for the 49ers, but he needs to hold onto the ball better considering he had a crucial fumble in the Super Bowl that led to a Ravens touchdown.
COACHING: In just 2 seasons as an NFL coach, Jim Harbaugh has turned the 49ers from bottom of the pack to championship contender with a lot of the same players left from Mike Singletary’s time as coach. He made an incredibly gutsy decision to bench the league’s most accurate passer for an unknown Colin Kaepernick and it worked out. The 49ers have become a reflection of Harbaugh’s personality and it shows by the way the team performs on Sundays.
X-FACTOR: Justin Smith
Justin Smith is the straw that stirs the drink for the San Francisco 49ers defense. Just look at what happened when Justin Smith went down in week 15 of last season. The 49ers were allowing 183 pass yards per game, and a 74.6 opposing quarterback rating with Justin Smith in the lineup. Once he tore his triceps, those numbers escalated to 300 passing yards per game and a 102.1 opposing quarterback rating.
Coincidence? Aldon Smith suffered as well. He was on pace to break Michael Strahan’s single season sack record of 22.5 after recording 19.5 through 13 games. He just needed 3.5 over the remaining 3 games and the record was his. But once Justin Smith went down, Aldon Smith didn’t record one sack the rest of the season, completely disappearing, and Michael Strahan kept his record. Justin Smith isn’t going to wow you with amazing plays and major sack numbers, but he’s far and away the most important player on the 49ers.
PREDICTION: People forget that Colin Kaepernick went 5-2 in the regular season before he exploded in the playoffs. San Francisco has tough games against the Packers, the Saints, the Redskins, the Falcons, as well as 2 games against division foe Seattle. The 49ers though still have a very good season and win the division.
12-4 (First in NFC West)