The San Francisco 49ers are one of the trendy picks to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl, and possibly even win it all. We've seen a slew of predictions already, some of them as obvious as predicting that the sun will come up tomorrow while others are downright ridiculous.
The 49ers WILL make the playoffs this year, they WILL win their division, they WILL win at least one postseason game and they WILL establish themselves once again as one of the premier teams in the NFL. But, in the words of Coach Harbaugh, these predictions are "masters of the obvious." What follows are some things that will happen during the season that most people would laugh at, but will come true this year.
So if you have friends who aren't privy to the wide world of Bleacher Report, feel free to claim these outlandish statements as your own. You'll look like a first-rate clairvoyant at the end of the season. I recommend starting each of these claims to your friends with the words, "You heard it here first."
Kendall Hunter looks poised to take a huge step forward this preseason. He's looked faster and stronger than last year and his increased familiarity with the offense should help him make serious improvements in his overall game.
Already a reliable pass-blocker and receiving threat out of the backfield —along with a surprising ability to run tough between the tackles despite his 5'7" 199-pound stature— Hunter's only obstacle to becoming the No. 1 running back in the Niners' rotation is Frank Gore. It certainly isn't a lack of ability that keeps him firmly in the second spot on the depth chart.
But with a weapon like Hunter, don't expect him to see second string-like playing time. Hunter is a versatile back who is quickly showing he can do a lot of things with the ball, especially in the open field. I expect Greg Roman and Jim Harbaugh to utilize him in myriad ways.
These are two of the best, most creative offensive minds in the league right now and there is every reason to believe that their superior ability as coaches, combined with the loss of Sean Payton's coaching in New Orleans, will allow them to use Hunter in ways that maximizes his talent above and beyond what Sproles will do this year.
So while Sproles will still have a huge season for the Saints this year, the combination of the equally-talented Hunter, an improved, diversified offensive scheme and the best play-callers in the game will enable Hunter to establish himself as one of the most dynamic threats out of the backfield.
That's right. You heard it here first. And I'm not talking about a better year in terms of how well the team does. There is no doubt in my mind that the 49ers will have a better year than the Broncos.
But the way Alex Smith will best Peyton Manning can be much more quantifiable than simple win-loss records. Smith will also end the year with a better passer rating and touchdown-to-interception ration than the elder Manning brother.
Alex Smith will always have his critics. There's probably nothing he could do, short of winning several Super Bowls, to validate his No. 1 overall pick status. But one thing that people forget about Smith is that he was considered a legitimate choice at No. 1 for a reason.
He's a physically-gifted player, extremely intelligent and by all accounts, has made Manning-esque strides in his grasp of Harbaugh's complicated system. He's also proven to be mentally tough, as evidenced by his handling of the Mike Nolan/Singletary criticisms of him and his five fourth quarter comebacks last year.
But what I like the most about Smith going into this year is his work with pitching guru Tom House to shore up his arm action and become a more accurate passer. The reviews out of camp seem to validate this.
What has traditionally been a weakness of Smith's could very well turn out to be a strength this year, one that will elevate him above Manning's performance this year and make everyone in the Bay Area glad that Manning signed with Denver.
Not many people would say that the Niners have no chance at beating Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Drew Brees and Eli Manning, even given that they'll face Rodgers, Brady and Brees in their respective home stadiums.
But I don't think anyone is giving them much of a chance to beat all of them this year. Many will point to the fact that the one area of weakness (or rather, the least strong area) is the secondary. Sure, at times they allowed some big plays and they gave up 32 points at home to Brees in the playoffs.
But for the most part, the secondary's numbers were a little deflated due to the fact that teams simply threw the ball more often against the Niners than practically any other team in the NFL. Running against that front seven is an exercise in futility, and to continue trying to do so is the epitome of insanity.
That being said, when a defense can make an offense one-dimensional, even if that one dimension happens to be some of the best passing attacks in the NFL, it makes the job easier for the defense. I don't care how good an offense is.
When you have a defense as physically talented and as physically punishing as the Niners, led by a defensive wizard in Vic Fangio, you've got to like your chances against ANY offense that is virtually guaranteed to abandon the run about halfway through their second offensive series of the game.
So yes, the Niners will beat Brees, Manning, Brady and Rodgers. It wouldn't surprise me if one of those players failed to finish the game against the Niners.
Call me crazy, but I just have a feeling that something odd will happen between Harbaugh and Schwartz again this year. It might happen before, during or after their Week 2 matchup in the San Francisco home opener, but something is going to happen between these two.
Harbaugh doesn't strike me as the type to forget about things. I don't doubt for one second that Harbaugh made some sort of comment to Schwartz as he slapped him on the back as a sort of retaliation in-your-face moment in response to Schwartz's mockery of Harbaugh after a disallowed challenge attempt earlier in the game.
I mean, when it comes to Harbaugh, we're talking about a guy who went for a two-point conversion in the waning moments of a 52-21 blowout of USC. The guy is a fierce competitor and seems to find even the slightest reason to hold a grudge or turn something into a personal affront if it feels it will ultimately help motivate his team even further.
Expect at least some sort of backhanded, thinly-veiled comment in Schwartz's direction somewhere around Week 2, or a deep pass to Randy Moss on first down toward the end of a blowout. Harbaugh will solidify himself this year as not only the best coach in the game, but the craziest and most intense since the glory days of Mike Ditka and the '85 Bears.
It will all end with the sixth one of these in the Santa Clara headquarters.
That's right. No one will beat the Niners this year. Of course, a season-ending injury to anyone named Willis or Smith may make this the most laughable prediction of all, and it may still be that way, but one can dream, can't they?
Actually, I don't see this prediction as being nearly the joke most may take it to be. Top to bottom, from depth to physical talent on offense, defense and special teams, the Niners are the most balanced and scariest team in the NFL.
If we accept that the 2012 version of Alex Smith will be a better version of the 2011 model and not a reversion to 2010 form, there really isn't a "weakness" per se on this team. Combine that with arguably the best coaching staff and the easiest divisional schedule in the league and you have the recipe for a serious run at perfection.
Road games in Green Bay, New Orleans and New England loom large, but truth be told, the Niners stack up well against all three in any stadium or in any weather conditions. In fact, I think the December game in New England is the one that is the most favorable for the Niners' and their run could come down to a game against the last team to go 16-0.
Of course, that New England team ended up 18-1, with the same record as the 1984 Niners and the 1985 Bears. The 2012 Niners will take things a step further and establish themselves as one of the great TEAMS in modern sports history this year by finishing a perfect 19-0. If there is any team in the NFL capable of doing so this year, it's the San Francisco 49ers.
1. Double-digit players named to the Pro Bowl
Andy Lee, Eric Bakhtiari (special teams), Patrick Willis, Navorro Bowman, Justin Smith, Aldon Smith, Donte Whitner, Kendall Hunter, Mike Iupati, Joe Staley and Alex Smith will all make the Pro Bowl. But none will play in it due to a prior engagement.
2. Aldon Smith will set the new sack record and be named the NFL's Defensive MVP.
Now that he'll presumably be playing a majority of the snaps on defense, Smith could see a big uptick from his rookie year sack total of 14. Add to that his continued development as 3-4 OLB and his growing chemistry with linemate Justin Smith (along with the extra attention the elder Smith continually gets). and the sack record could just be part of a huge year for the budding star.
3. Candlestick Park will cement itself as the most historic stadium in the NFL.
Green Bay fans may disagree here, and they'd have a legitimate argument right now; but Candlestick Park has hosted a whopping eight NFC Championship Games since 1970, the most in the NFL.
In the same time span, Lambeau has hosted two. This year will make it nine championship games, and when you factor in the legendary weather, the Hall of Fame baseball and football players that have called it home, the famed 1989 Earthquake Series and that it hosted the Beatles' last concert, there's no denying that Candlestick Park, warts and all, will go down as one of the legendary sporting venues when it's gone.