The path to Super Bowl XLVII—a path the San Francisco 49ers plan to take—is one filled with detours, distractions, steep inclines and expertly placed traps disguised as "easy wins."
So to make the journey as smooth as possible, I will install the following five caution signs along the way.
Alex Smith Regresses
It's what fans fear the most and what critics expect.
Smith flourished last season while limiting mistakes—only five interceptions—and making the clutch throws when needed. But can he repeat the success?
With added weapons, he should. If not, the boo birds, like hungry vultures, will return and swarm Candlestick.
Smith thrives when confident, folds when not. He needs to hit the ground running once the season starts and never look back.
The way he finished last season—1,523 yards, nine touchdowns and zero interceptions in his final seven starts—should be enough of a boost to strengthen that confidence and to avoid regression.
A Case of the Sophomore Slumps
The "Sophomore Slump" is a common epidemic in pro sports—and the music industry. It befalls second-year players, especially those successful just a year prior.
Think Sam Bradford in 2011. That should illustrate it well.
The 49ers are counting on several second-year players, including Aldon Smith, Chris Culliver, Kendall Hunter and Bruce Miller, to receive significant playing time and to make a leap in production, not a dive towards Slumpville.
And don't forget Jim Harbaugh, who is entering his second season as head coach. What happens if his magic powder—just add water for instant wins—stops working?
For the 49ers to repeat as NFC West champs and contend for a Lombardi Trophy, these "sophomores" have to continue to step up on the big stage.
Dashon Goldson Situation
Play like Eric Weddle, and you'll get paid like Eric Weddle—simple as that.
Goldson, after a Pro Bowl season and a career-high six interceptions, demanded a long-term, big-money contract comparable to Weddle's.
Instead, the free safety was given a franchise tag worth $6.2 million.
Simply put, Goldson's value on the field, in the eyes of the 49ers front office, is not comparable to Weddle. The interception total is high, and the hits are jarring, but Goldson is still shaky in coverage. He takes bad angles and misses too many tackles.
Wrap up, Dashon, not every hit needs to be highlight-worthy.
How he reacts to not receiving a long-term deal is something to monitor as the season begins. He can either be upset and play poorly or use it as fuel and extra motivation.
Surprise Teams in a Tough Schedule
The NFL schedule makers did the 49ers no favors in 2012.
Eleven of the 16 regular season games are against teams with a .500 or better record in 2011. It's all a part of increased expectations. As they rise, so does the level of competition.
The Buffalo Bills, Chicago Bears and Miami Dolphins—a combined 20-28 in 2011—are much-improved teams and not to be taken lightly. Then there are the usual opponents, the divisional foes, who always provide a challenge, regardless of record or talent on paper.
There is nothing you can do about this other than hope for the best. Injuries are a part of this physical, hard-hitting sport—like it or not.
Aside from the usual nicks and wear and tear of a 16-game season, the 49ers remained miraculously healthy throughout 2011 and into the playoffs. And that played a major role in the team's success.
It's hard to imagine they'll be this lucky—or healthy—again.
Knock on wood.
If you're radar is tracking any other possible obstacles standing in the way of the franchise's sixth Super Bowl, feel free to add them below.