As the NFL preseason begins, football fans around the United States will be prepping for their fantasy drafts, watching every play of their hometown team and praying to the football gods that no one fairly important gets hurt in a game that doesn't matter at all in the long run.
The NFC has won the last three Super Bowls—and four of the last five—so if recent trends continue, the battle for the NFC crown will be as close as ever with many teams looking to have improved seasons.
The San Francisco 49ers finished last season with a 13-3 record, which made them the No. 2 seed in the NFC bracket and gave them a first round bye. They would go on to defeat the New Orleans Saints in the second round, 36-32, in a rare showing of their offensive fire power.
In the NFC Championship game, however, they would fall to the eventual Super Bowl Champion New York Giants, 20-17, in an overtime thriller.
But that was last year, and this season the 49ers will be ready to make that leap into the Super Bowl. They are the team to beat in the NFC and here's why.
When Alex Smith was drafted with the first overall draft pick in 2005 by the 49ers from the University of Utah, there was talk that he would be the next franchise quarterback after Steve Young. It may have taken seven seasons, but Smith is finally turning into that guy.
Of course he will never have the skill of Joe Montana or Steve Young, but this is a different kind of team than it was over those eras. Smith showed in last year's playoff game against the New Orleans Saints that he has the ability to make big plays on the big stage when the game is on the line.
Smith's phenomenal 28-yard run gave the 49ers the lead with two minutes left in the ball game to take the lead. After Drew Brees quickly led the Saints to a touchdown, Smith drove again and threw a touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining.
He has had to climb an incredible mountain since being drafted, and now that Smith has legitimate weapons in Davis, Michael Crabtree, Ted Ginn Jr. and now Randy Moss, he could be preparing for a career year.
The 49ers defense has been great for years now, but now that their quarterback is becoming a reliable guy when the game is on the line, the last piece of the puzzle may have finally been found.
There is no doubting the fact that the 49ers have one of the best defenses in the league, and there is no reason for that trend to change during this upcoming season.
Last season, the 49ers gave up 229 points during the entire regular season, which comes to an average of only 14.3 points per game. To put that in perspective of the rest of the league, the Pittsburgh Steelers were the only team that allowed fewer points (227), and the Baltimore Ravens and Houston Texans were the only other two teams to allow less than 300 points.
The last two Super Bowl Champions have had sub-par defenses at best, and have focused on their offense to win the title, but that trend will change back to the ol' saying that "defense wins championships" next year.
With a stabilized offensive force, and a dominant defense unit led by linebacker Patrick Willis, the 49ers will be powerful on both sides of the ball, and no other team in the NFC can match up with what San Francisco will be putting on the field.
Belief in the System
Jim Harbaugh may best be known for his handshake with Detroit Lions head coach Jim Schwartz last season, but his aggressiveness and ability to lead with emotion is something that has been needed in the 49ers organization.
Even though the key players of his team like Alex Smith and Frank Gore seem to be more poised and relaxed opposed to Harbaugh's outgoing coaching style, he has found a way to connect with his leaders and has them believing in the system that he has created.
You can have an NFL team with a fantastic offense and unstoppable defense, but a lot of times it can come down to coaching. Calling the right play at the right time and knowing that your players will not second guess your decision and will go out and execute can separate a team that simply makes the playoffs from a team that wins the Super Bowl.
The 49ers are the team to beat in the NFC.