The San Francisco 49ers came out of nowhere last season and were just a few plays away from playing in the Super Bowl.
Jim Harbaugh led the 49ers to a 13-3 record in his first year and has the team set for success again next season.
His no-nonsense and tough-minded coaching approach fits perfectly with the defense in San Francisco.
It all starts at middle linebacker with perhaps the best duo in the NFL in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman.
Willis has established himself as arguably the best middle linebacker in the NFL, but it was Bowman who led the team with 143 tackles, 111 of them solo.
When Bowman and Willis get their hands on a ball carrier they are going to get them to the ground.
The 49ers also have excellent pass-rushers in a pass-happy league.
The defensive end positions feature Ray McDonald and Justin Smith. McDonald finished with 5.5 sacks last year, while Smith was second on the team with 7.5. Smith is one of the more underrated defensive ends in the league, and he makes an impact in every game he plays.
The two outside linebackers also get after the quarterback.
Aldon Smith burst onto the scene last year for the 49ers in his rookie season with 14 sacks while Ahmad Brooks had seven.
Teams will make an adjustment on Smith after seeing him for a year, but there is no denying his talent.
Those guys help make life easier on defensive backs Carlos Rogers, Tarell Brown, Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner.
On the offensive side of the ball, there are some good young players at key positions.
Alex Smith finally looked comfortable in an offense and showed why he was a No. 1 overall pick.
The 49ers didn't go after a quarterback in the offseason, which should instill even more confidence in Smith.
You know you're going to get 1,000 yards out of Frank Gore as long as he stays healthy. You'll get production out of him in the passing game, too.
Vernon Davis is one of the most talented tight ends in the game and Michael Crabtree has shown promise as a receiver. Both give Smith quality receiving targets.
It is no secret that the NFC West is one of the weakest divisions in football, and there are question marks surrounding each of Niners division rivals.
Harbaugh has a top defense to work with as well as some good young talent on offense. That, combined with the energy he brings as a coach, will give the 49ers the edge in the NFC West.
They proved last year that they are a legit contender for the Super Bowl.
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