As a reward for posting a 13-3 record and winning the NFC West in 2011, the San Francisco 49ers face a rather daunting schedule in 2012.
To be sure, the Niners’ schedule last year was no cakewalk: going to battle against five eventual playoff teams—three of which were on the road—and eight teams that finished .500 or better was a formidable task.
(San Francisco recorded seven wins against just two losses against those teams for those unaware.)
They once again play eight teams with at least eight wins from the previous year, but the overall competition is much stronger in 2012.
Not all competition is as imposing, though, so let’s briefly dissect each opponent awaiting the 49ers in 2012.
Quarterback Christian Ponder hopes to bring the Vikings out of the dregs of NFL irrelevancy.
Minnesota Vikings (3-13, Fourth Place, NFC North), Away
Quarterback Christian Ponder doesn’t inspire fear among the opposition nor instill much confidence among his own squad.
Even if the Vikings draft Matt Kalil as their pro-ready left tackle, he cannot catch passes or play defense.
This team is a mess.
Matt Moore (No. 8) hands off to Daniel Thomas. Expect much of the same in 2012.
Buffalo Bills (6-10, Fourth Place, AFC East), Home
I will by no means dismiss the Bills as unworthy of fair consideration.
Steve Johnson and Fred Jackson are Pro Bowl-caliber offensive weapons. Mario Williams and Marcell Dareus are some of the best at their respective positions among the defensive front seven. They will surely wreak havoc on the Niners’ O-line.
Even so, this team is far from complete and Ryan Fitzpatrick seemingly plays well only when he’s in the mood. Harbaugh’s boys aren’t intimidated.
Miami Dolphins (6-10, Third Place, AFC East), Home
Oh, the poor Dolphins. Jeff Ireland continues his reign of general-managing inadequacy.
Once such an esteemed franchise and prime destination for free agents, the Miami Dolphins now equate to relative NFL Siberia.
Good luck, Matt Moore. Your GM sure knows how to cultivate the trust and loyalty of his employees.
Andre Roberts (No. 12) seems to enjoy the outcome of this play.
The St. Louis Rams (2-14) were pitiful in 2011 and will continue to be a sore sight for sore eyes.
(I would have placed the Rams somewhere near the Vikings on this list, but decided to lump the NFC West together.)
On a positive note, new head Coach Jeff Fisher will instill hard-nosed, smart football that emphasizes the run and intimidation on defense.
Returning to the negative, he, Cortland Finnegan (Fisher’s former player), a returning Steven Jackson and a possibly added Justin Blackmon in the draft will not mollify the collective woes of this team. The linebacker corps (minus James Laurinaitus) and offensive line, among other areas, need major overhauling. Sam Bradford will have to learn a new offensive system as well./
St. Louis will win a few more games, but pose no real obstacle to the 49ers.
Seattle held the opposition to under 17 points per game in six out of their final eight games.
More importantly, they nearly took down the 49ers in front of the 12th man, sporting the lead with less than seven minute remaining. Marshawn Lynch, aka Beast Mode Skittle Boy, was the first to score a rushing touchdown all season against the Niners. He also ended their amazing streak of not allowing a 100-yard rusher since Week 11 of 2009
And not forgetting that Matt Flynn upgrades the quarterback position as well, traveling into Seattle and departing with a victory will be a legitimately arduous undertaking for Harbaugh’s squad.
Arizona, meanwhile, won five out of its last six while limiting opponents to 18.7 points per game. Compare that with 23.6 in their previous 10 games. This transformation occurred after a loss in San Francisco and included a defeat of the 49ers in Phoenix, showing that the Cardinals have a quick response time to a loss.
With the monstrous Calais Campbell charging towards Alex Smith, the Cards will be no joke when the Niners play them on the road in 2012—even with the questions revolving around Kevin Kolb as quarterback.
"It's not my fault that I'll be the starting QB by Week 4."
Chicago Bears (8-8, Third Place, NFC North), Home
Brandon Marshall reunites with Jay Cutler. The duo were prolific during their time in Denver from 2007 to 2008. Marshall totaled 206 receptions, 2,590 yards and 13 touchdowns with his boy throwing him the pigskin.
Combined with Johnny Knox and the two-headed monster of Matt Forte and Michael Bush pounding the rock, the Bears offense is not one to be toyed with.
Neither is the defense. Lance Briggs and Brian Urlacher still patrol the middle of the field, Charles Tillman remains a fine corner and Julius Peppers eats QBs for lunch.
Oh, and that Devin Hester fellow is still the best return man in NFL history.
Will that be enough for the visiting Bears?
New York Jets (8-8, Second Place, AFC East), Away
I’m going to keep this analysis very brief.
Starting or not, Timmy Terrific will find a way.
Big Ray splitting double teams and coming for you again, Eli Boy.
New York Giants (9-7, First Place, NFC East), Home
The football Giants return to Candlestick Park, where they went 1-1 last year but won the obviously more significant second matchup—the NFC Championship.
They’ll come in guns’ blazing with a Super Bowl champion swagger and will look to prove that Mario Manningham and Brandon Jacobs were inconsequential losses.
The Niners will seek vengeance. Watch for the Carlos Rogers-Victor Cruz matchup.
Detroit Lions (10-6, Second Place, NFC North), Home
Those blue and white kitty cats also appear on the schedule again, but this time away from the comfort of their home field.
But the 49ers thwarted his attempts in 2011 and will be confident to do so again this year.
What does Aaron Rodgers have in store for the 49ers in 2012?
New Orleans Saints (13-3, First Place, NFC South), Away
Where do I begin?
Preseason. Greg Williams. Disgust. Powerhouse Offense. Drew Brees. All-time Records.
Playoffs. NFC Divisional. Pierre Thomas. Adios. Alex Smith. Comeback. 49ers Win.
Bountygate. Greg Williams. No Greg Williams. Sean Payton. No Sean Payton.
Suspensions. Greg Williams. Pregame speech. Leaked audio. 49ers targeted.
Let me conclude this truncated timeline by saying that nothing can serve as more of a motivating factor than the Bountygate scandal for the 49ers. Superdome or not, Jim Harbaugh and Vic Fangio will take no prisoners.
New England Patriots (13-3, First Place, AFC East), Away
Many of the 49er faithful and the 49ers themselves sincerely believed that it would have been a Red and Gold vanquishing of the Patriots had they reached the Super Bowl.
It all comes down to matchups. The No. 2 49ers’ scoring defense versus the No. 3 Patriots’ scoring offense. The 49ers’ front seven versus the Patriots offensive line. The 49ers’ linebackers versus the Patriots’ tight ends.
The eagle eyes of Patrick Willis versus those of Tom Brady.
Both fanbases logically can and will argue for their respective strengths.
Playing in Gillette Stadium can be a brutal assignment for any opposing team, especially in the harsh winter months of December and January. For me, though, the 49ers style of play is perfectly conducive for those conditions.
Can’t wait to see how it all goes down.
Green Bay Packers (15-1, First Place, NFC North), Away
And so I conclude with the 49ers most challenging and intriguing matchup.
The prominent storyline here—as it was in both 2009 and 2010—is Aaron Rodgers, the quarterback with the ultimate chip on his shoulder.
For the third time in his career, Rodgers plays host to the team that many argue should have drafted him No.1 overall in the 2005 draft; the team that should have drafted him over incumbent starting quarterback Alex Smith.
Despite my outspoken contrarian feelings towards a certain draft strategy seven years ago, what is pertinent now is that these are two NFC favorites going to war.
I will refrain from introducing Rodgers' absurdly dominant statistics from the two previous 49ers-Packers battles.
Rather, I will focus on a matchup better than the one against the Patriots and Saints, yes even against the Bountygate Saints.
Greg Williams is gone, and Aaron Rodgers is still here.
The Packers and 49ers are the premier teams of the NFC—Giants Super Bowl win or not. One is going to represent the conference in the Super Bowl.
Lambeau Field? I hope it snows sideways.