Aside from a few roster moves, the most notable difference with the San Francisco 49ers heading into this season is expectations—much, much higher expectations. There's a scent of "Super Bowl or bust" around the facility these days. It's a far cry from last season, when every ESPN "expert" rode shotgun in the St. Louis Rams' bandwagon.
The last time the 49ers shouldered the burden of being the heavy favorite to win the NFC West, they fell flat on their face en route to a 6-10 record. Of course, that was the year 2010 B.H. (Before Harbaugh), and the team was plenty different—both mentality-wise and in personnel.
2011 was no fluke. The 49ers are winners now. So how do they respond with an increase in expectations and a target placed squarely on their backs?
Based on their schedule, here is how.
Week 1: at Green Bay Packers
The 49ers travel to Lambeau Field—where they haven't won since 1998—on opening Sunday to face the potent Packers. And location is key, as is temperature. The warm weather actually favors the home team that features a slightly better aerial attack.
And the quest for a Lombardi Trophy begins with a loss.
Week 2: Detroit Lions
All eyes, mine included, will be on The Handshake: Round 2.
But don't forget: This will be a very competitive game between two very talented teams. In front of a sellout (and raucous) crowd, the 49ers employ a balanced effort to put more points on the board than the visiting Lions.
Week 3: at Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings have a few young pieces in place but are still mediocre as a whole. They rely on the running of workhorse Adrian Peterson, which plays into the hands of the 49ers defense—they held opponents to a league-low 77.2 rushing yards per game in 2011.
It shouldn't be close. 49ers roll.
Week 4: at New York Jets
Who will be the Jets' starting quarterback at this point—Mark Sanchez or Tim Tebow? Rex Ryan has already gushed over Tebow, and the crass coach is never one to shy away from drama. Oh that's right, we're supposed to talk about the actual game. Dang Tebow.
Jets grind out a win in a low-scoring affair, knocking the 49ers to 2-2. Don't fret. A streak is on the horizon.
Week 5: Buffalo Bills
Smith vs. Ryan Fitzpatrick. A football field hasn't seen this much intelligence since Stephen Hawking performed during Super Bowl XXXVIII.
Wait, that was actually the year of Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." I stand corrected.
Fitzpatrick is pretty smart, but even he will have a tough time adding up the sacks and quarterback hurries by the 49ers defense. To help him out, let's just say "a lot." And that is the difference this Sunday.
Week 6: New York Giants
By now, the 49ers will be sick of teams from the state of New York, but something tells me they'll be up for this one.
I will refrain from calling it a "revenge game," instead opting for the more suitable "beat-the-crap-out-of-you-until-the-pain-of-last-year's-disappointment-leaves game." Mission accomplished.
Week 7: Seattle Seahawks
Trap game? No such thing—not with the beef between Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll rooted back to their days in the Pac-10.
Tough game? Yes. These are division rivals that know each other well and often find themselves in close contests. The Seahawks are an up-and-coming team with loads of potential, but the 49ers are better in the present.
Week 8: at Arizona Cardinals
Another NFC West foe and another tough venue for the 49ers. Last season's loss is fresh on their minds and used as fuel to prevent a repeat.
I see the Cardinals surprising many and pushing for a postseason berth, but the wild-card route is their best bet. Sorry. The 49ers run for over 200 yards and throw for over 200 as well. It's the balance—clearly my favorite word in describing this team—that makes them so lethal.
Week 9: Bye
49ers march into "halftime" of the regular season at 6-2. Time to rest, get healthy, see the fam and get ready for the homestretch.
Week 10: St. Louis Rams
The second half kicks off with a home game against the Rams—led by new coach Jeff Fisher and a healthy Sam Bradford. However, the 49ers are well-rested and prepared for everything the Rams throw their way.
Look for the defense—as they frequently do—to force multiple turnovers, and the offense to capitalize in a big way.
Week 11: Chicago Bears
As Jay Cutler goes, so go the Bears. When he went down with an injury last season, the team soon followed suit and dropped entirely out of the playoff picture.
Much like the 49ers, Chicago is stout on defense, is superb on special teams, runs the ball effectively and can air it out if needed.
In a back-and-forth battle, the home team eeks out a victory. And to be more specific, Alex Smith leads another fourth-quarter comeback. He's getting pretty good at those these days.
Week 12: at New Orleans Saints
Drew Brees will be Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham will do Jimmy Graham things, but the holes in the Saints defense are too large to go unnoticed. The 49ers carve them up again. A win and a boost in playoff seeding is the reward.
Week 13: at St. Louis Rams
Road trip continues—so do the winning ways. The Rams are overmatched, but keep it close with a few big plays. This time, it's the play of the special teams that propels the 49ers. Clutch field goals, pinpoint punts and a dosage of Ted Ginn lead the way.
Week 14: Miami Dolphins
Am I in the minority thinking the Dolphins will be competitive week in and week out? Their defense is young and opportunistic, the offense progressed with Matt Moore under center—the quarterback was 6-3 as a starter last season—and Reggie Bush has bold predictions to chase.
However, his path to the rushing title will take a major detour when the Fins swim into the Bay. The win bumps the 49ers to 11-2 and secures back-to-back postseason appearances.
Week 15: at New England Patriots
Early Super Bowl preview? Possibly, but let's not jump too far ahead.
The Patriots are a great team at home—especially this time of year—and you can bet they'll be fighting for the No. 1 seed in the AFC. Even with the 49ers' stingy defense, there's no point in trying to stop Tom Brady's offense. It's about slowing them down as much as possible and outscoring them. Duh.
Easier said than done, though. The Patriots win the shootout, but maybe the two will meet again.
Week 16: at Seattle Seahawks
And the 49ers suffer their first, and only, losing streak of the season. With a Wild Card within reach, the Seahawks fight for a decisive win and do what no other team has to this point: run the ball effectively against the 49ers, with Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin—aka Beast Mode Twins.
Time to regroup and regain momentum as the playoffs near.
Week 17: Arizona Cardinals
There really is no place like home. After consecutive losses, the 49ers bounce back in a big way. On the backs of a dominating defense and determined offense, San Francisco wins by a wide margin.
Momentum regained—just in time.
Final record: 12-4, NFC West champs and a No. 2 seed in the NFC