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The 49ers went 13-3 last year, but are they really an elite team?
Every year in the NFL, there is a "surprise team" that surpasses expectations and makes a run into the playoffs.
Last season, that "surprise team" was the San Francisco 49ers.
In Jim Harbaugh's first season as 49ers head coach, he was named the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year and led San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game. The former NFL quarterback seemed like a perfect fit for the 49ers, a team with rich history at the position, but the heart and soul of last year's team was not their offense—it was their stout defense.
Allowing just 14.3 points per game, the league's second-best scoring defense overcame San Francisco's offensive shortcomings.
Led by Patrick Willis, likely the league's best linebacker, and Justin Smith, perhaps the best defensive lineman in football last season, the 49ers boasted an elite front seven and made it very difficult for opposing offenses to move the ball.
San Fransisco had the best run defense in the NFL last season, allowing just 77.3 yards per game on the ground—more than 15 yards fewer than Baltimore, the league's No. 2 run defense last season. Without being able to run the ball, opposing teams were forced to try their luck with the passing game, which resulted in outside linebacker Aldon Smith recording 14 sacks in his rookie season.
If it weren't for a couple offensive miscues and a muffed punt in the NFC Championship, it would have been the 49ers, instead of the New York Giants, playing in Super Bowl XLVI against the New England Patriots.
Headed into this offseason, the 49ers clearly identified deficiencies on offense. By signing veteran wide receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and spending their first round pick on Illinois wide receiver A.J. Jenkins, San Fransisco will hope for a more explosive offense in 2012.
However, despite being the NFC's runner-up last season and addressing their biggest needs, the 49ers have their work cut out for them if they want to make another deep playoff run this season.
Among the most consistent teams in the NFL, a common theme is having an elite quarterback under center. Although Alex Smith did a great job taking care of the ball in 2011, he threw just 17 touchdowns and San Francisco's success last season had more to do with their stellar defense and strong running game.
Playing in the NFC West, San Francisco could potentially win the division with a nine-win season, but the playoffs so often come down to which team has the edge at quarterback, and the 49ers will often lose that matchup.
When Peyton Manning was released by the Indianapolis Colts, Harbaugh showed interest in the four-time MVP. If the 49ers had been successful in their pursuit of Manning, they'd be a clear-cut favorite to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl.
Without him, San Francisco's offense could really struggle if their running game isn't as strong in 2012 as it was in 2011.
Despite winning 13 games in the regular season, six of those wins came in one-possession games decided by seven points or less. The 49ers will play the NFC North, perhaps the deepest division in football, and the AFC East, home to the defending AFC Champion Patriots.
After narrowly escaping with a one-point win over the Eagles and a two-point victory over the Seahawks last year, San Francisco will have its hands full against stiff competition this season.
One year after being the "pleasant surprise" of 2011, the 49ers could again be this year's "surprise team," but it may be for very different reasons.
(2011 Record: 13-3, 2012 Prediction: 9-7)