2011 was a magical year for the San Francisco 49ers. They return a strong team in 2012 that should again win the NFC West.
However, it is reasonable to expect that the 49ers will take a step back this season. The Arizona Cardinals’ quarterback situation is a dumpster fire, but the Rams and the Seahawks are solid teams that won’t present an easy out for anyone. The reigning division champs will have their work cut out for them.
A good cautionary tale for the 2012 49ers are the 2007 Chicago Bears. The 2006 Bears had a great season, finishing 13-3. Their playoff run went all the way to the Super Bowl. Rex Grossman, historically injury-prone and inconsistent, led the Bears’ offense with 3,193 passing yards, 23 touchdowns and only 20 interceptions (which, for Rex, is great). Rookie Devin Hester electrified the return game and Thomas Jones pounded the ball on the ground. A lights-out defense kept them in every game. It seemed like almost every bounce went the Bears’ way.
In 2007, it fell apart for the Bears. Injuries were a factor, but Rex became Rex again. He got hurt and only played in eight games. When he did play, Grossman wasn’t that good. The offense, coming off a plus-eight turnover margin in 2006, took a step back to minus-one. The defense became inconsistent, dominating one week and looking ordinary the next. They finished 2007 at a mediocre 7-9.
The 49ers are eerily similar in makeup and philosophy to the 2006-2007 Bears teams. While Alex Smith is not an elite quarterback and never will be, he does not turn the ball over like Rex Grossman. The 49ers will not likely have the plus-28 turnover margin in 2012 like they had in 2011, so there will almost certainly be a few games that the 49ers lose because they aren’t getting the bounces they got last year. Their schedule, on paper, looks harder than it turned out to be in 2011, so a step back is almost inevitable. But stepping back does not mean 7-9. Or does it?
San Francisco has upgraded a little on offense with the additions of Mario Manningham, Randy Moss and Brandon Jacobs, but the improvement will be minimal. Randy Moss wasn’t effective during his last season in the league, Mario Manningham has always been a No. 2 receiver at best, and Brandon Jacobs weighs 260 pounds but has shown he's afraid of contact. Not only that, but Jacobs runs high and is prone to injury because of it.
Working on the right guard situation could help the running game, but the 49ers are average at best at quarterback and relied way too much on 40-plus-yard field goals in 2011.
The 49ers will still be a top-ten team in the NFL, but they are not going to go 13-3 again. They are simply too limited offensively in a passing league.
If I seem too pessimistic, keep in mind that I predicted that the 49ers would be 4-12 in 2011 before the season started. So, maybe I’ll be wrong again on the good side for the 49ers. Maybe.
This would be a tough start to any team’s season. The beer- and sausage-filled crowd will be in a hoppy frenzy by kickoff.
Green Bay has upgraded on the offensive line and should be better on defense after a solid draft. The Packers have a great offense, but the 49er defense will keep them in check.
However, the 49er offense still struggles in the red zone. The Packers will score the same number of times as the 49ers, but will get more touchdowns and get a win to start the season.
Packers 24, 49ers 16
Season Record: 0-1
The 49ers’ home opener will get a lot of hype because of Jim Schwartz/Jim Harbaugh handshake debacle in Detroit last year. In this prime-time affair, the Lions will be out for revenge for a game that they feel they should have won.
However, no matter how much the Lions want to win this game, they still cannot rush the ball consistently and they are undisciplined. Matt Stafford will be harassed by the 49er front seven all game and San Francisco will contain Calvin Johnson.
It will come down to the 4th quarter, but the Lions will commit a dumb penalty or miss an assignment that leads to the winning field goal.
49ers 19, Lions 17
Season Record: 1-1
I would not be really surprised if the Vikings end 2012 at 0-16.
Christian Ponder struggled in his rookie season and has not looked worlds better in the 2012 preseason.
Although Adrian Peterson will come back from an ACL tear, he will not be 100 percent until later in the year. The 49ers will stop Peterson and Toby Gerhart and force Ponder to beat them. Ponder has not shown that he can win a game by himself so far.
Alex Smith might have his best game of the year, throwing for 225 yards against a weak Viking defense.
49ers 23, Vikings 3
Season Record: 2-1
The Jets will be a mess by this Week 4 matchup.
After starting the season 1-2, there will be calls from the New York media to start Tim Tebow and fire Rex Ryan. The 49ers will have three weeks’ film to game plan for Tebow and he will be largely ineffective.
The Jets’ offense, which struggled in the preseason, will be better using its full playbook but it will still be limited.
The Jets defense is elite and will keep the game close. Although I would trust Mark Sanchez more than Alex Smith to lead a game-winning drive in the fourth quarter, I think the 49er offense wears down the Jets’ defense and they squeak by in the end.
49ers 16, Jets 13
Season Record: 3-1
The 49ers will be feeling good about themselves after finishing the first quarter of the season at 3-1. The Bills come in at 3-1, fresh off a home loss to the New England Patriots. The Bills will want to prove that they are not going to fall apart in 2012 after a fast start. The Bills have improved their defense in the offseason and Ryan Fitzpatrick is a solid quarterback. The offense disappears in this game and the defense has a rare stinker. The 49ers get caught looking ahead to the New York Giants. Bills 28, 49ers 10. Season Record 3-2
Kyle Williams is going to have a microphone in his face all week—if Harbaugh lets it happen. If it doesn’t, Williams better shut off his cable because his drop from the NFC Championship Game will be repeated about 500 times on ESPN leading up to the week.
This will be a tough game because the Giants have not lost much since last year.
Williams will get a key block on the final drive and the defense will hold off Eli Manning in the end. Revenge will be served.
49ers 27, Giants 21
Season Record: 4-2
Riding high coming off the big win against New York, the 49ers will have to refocus quickly for their first division game of the year, which is on a Thursday night.
The Seahawks will be 3-3 coming into Week 7 and hoping to take over first place in the division.
Russell Wilson will wish he hadn’t started after the 49ers bottle up the Seahawks’ very good run game and shift the focus on him. Matt Flynn will finish the game and the 49ers will do enough on offense and special teams to take control of the NFC West.
49ers 25, Seahawks 14
Season Record: 5-2
The quarterback carousel will continue in the desert and be a mess by Week 8. However, the Cardinals have an excellent defense and always play San Francisco tough in Glendale.
This will be close at halftime but some bounces will go the wrong way in the third quarter and the Cardinals will pull away. Alex Smith has his worst game of the season and it prompts Jim Harbaugh to angrily protect his quarterback in the post-game press conference. NFL charities will get some money from the Harbaugh checkbook.
Cardinals 24, 49ers 13
Season Record: 5-3
Colin Kaepernick will get some extra snaps in the bye week and some columnists will muse if Alex Smith’s job is in danger. Harbaugh will deflect the criticism and focus on getting better. The press, after watching practice, will conclude that Kaepernick needs more seasoning before there is any quarterback change. Look for the 49ers to be ready and rested for Week 10.
Jeff Fischer knows what he is doing and the Rams will be much better in 2012. Coming into Week 10 the Rams will be 3-5 and still believing that they can contend for the division.
They will start this game strong and build a small lead, but the 49er defense will get it into gear and keep it close at halftime. The 49er offense will wear down the smallish Rams defense in the second half and survive the scare.
Neither Sam Bradford, nor Kellen Clemens, would be able to lead a comeback, anyway.
49ers 32, Rams 17
Season Record: 6-3
While the 49ers defense is one of the best in the league, one of its Achilles’ heels is that the secondary can be very average. Jay Cutler has a strong arm and his favorite target back in the fold with Brandon Marshall.
While the Bears’ defense is aging and not as dominant as it once was, it can hold the 49er offense to field goals.
This will be a game where the 49ers dominate most of the game but give up a couple of huge pass plays and a return touchdown. The nation will be thrilled by this Monday Night Football battle, but 49ers fans will be left shaking their heads.
Bears 21, 49ers 19
Season Record: 6-4
Between the "Bountygate" suspensions and the upheaval caused by Hurricane Isaac, the Saints are going to have a frustrating year. They will be 5-5 going into Week 12 and hoping to kick-start a playoff run.
The absence of Sean Payton will be felt in game-planning for the 49ers because the 49ers can contain the Saints’ offense.
The Saints’ defense, which will struggle all year, gives up a couple of big plays in the second half and then won’t be able to get off the field to give their offense a chance to catch up. This will be the story of the Saints’ season—great offense and a defense that lets them down.
49ers 30, Saints 22
Season Record: 7-4
The Rams will be 4-7 and still mathematically alive for the playoffs. Their desperation will show in the first quarter, so expect a trick play or two.
However, the 49ers still have better personnel overall and the game, as it usually does, will come down to blocking and tackling. Don’t expect a furious fourth-quarter comeback like we saw in Week 17 of 2011.
Both Anthony Dixon and Frank Gore run for nearly 100 yards while David Akers hits a career-long 58-yarder at the end of the first half.
Put a fork in the Rams; they’re thinking about 2013.
49ers 23, Rams 17
Season Record: 8-4
The Dolphins are going to struggle in 2012 with rookie Ryan Tannehill working through a number of NFL growing pains because of his inexperience at the position.
The Dolphins will be 2-10 coming into Candlestick Park, but they will show signs of improvement throughout a trying year.
This game will go much like the Tampa Bay game in 2011—the 49ers will grab hold of the contest from the start and we will see Matt Moore in the game after Tannehill’s third interception.
The 49ers will not be able to run up the score on a solid Miami defense, but the Dolphins’ three-and-outs add up.
49ers 26, Dolphins 10
Season Record: 9-4
Back again on Sunday night, the 49ers will travel cross-country to face-off against the defending AFC champions in Foxborough.
The 49ers were able to contain Jimmy Graham against the Saints, but they are going to struggle to contain both Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez. The Patriots have made a living in the Brady/Belichick era trading touchdowns for field goals.
The Patriot defense was great in the red zone in 2011 and that will continue in 2012. The 49ers excel at settling for field goals, so this one will be tough to watch.
Patriots 28, 49ers 15
Season Record: 9-5
The 49ers scraped together a win last year in Seattle, but that is a tall order to fill two years in a row. Seattle has one of the best home-field advantages in the game.
The 49ers, coming off a tough loss to New England and having to travel after a late game on the east coast, will come out flat against Seattle.
The Seahawks, who by this point in the season will be 7-7 and still in the running for the division, will jump out to an early lead and the limited 49er offense can’t catch up. David Akers misses a long field goal at the end in lousy conditions, and the 49ers will not be able to eke out a win this year.
Seahawks 21, 49ers 20
Season Record: 9-6
Ken Wisenhunt may be losing his job this year
With the Seahawks breathing down their necks going into Week 17, the 49ers are going to have a lot on the line. A first-round bye is not possible, but they can still nab the division and possibly the three-seed with a win.
The Cardinals come in at the end of another mediocre season and will just be waiting for the final gun so Ken Whisenhunt can be prematurely fired and the rest of the team can go play golf.
The fans in Seattle will cringe as the out-of-town scoreboard continues to creep up on the San Francisco side. The 49ers blast their way into the playoffs, but only get the four-seed.
49ers 30, Cardinals 7
Season Record: 10-6
In the rematch of an ugly Monday Night Football loss, the 49ers get a chance for revenge. And they get it.
Jay Cutler, beat up from a season of average offensive line play, will really suffer from not getting a bye week. The 49er defense bottles up Matt Forte, which causes Cutler to force the ball too much. Cutler and Marshall can’t manage to hook up for the big play like they did in Week 11 and a wet field in San Francisco slows down Devin Hester.
The 49er defense takes charge in this one and doesn’t make Alex Smith to do too much.
49ers 27, Bears 16
Barring injury, the Packers should be the one-seed again in the NFC playoffs. Mike McCarthy is a good coach and the Packers will learn from their 2011 mistakes and avoid an early playoff exit.
The 49ers’ team is built for cold weather in Green Bay, true, but the Packers have a large advantage at quarterback and the 49ers cannot depend on 40-plus-yard field goals at a windy and cold Lambeau Field.
The 49er defense is good enough to keep the Packers in check just like they did in Week 1, but the Packer defense will have no problem keeping the 49er offense sputtering. The defense can’t carry the team two weeks in a row and Alex Smith is not good enough to win a road playoff game.
Packers 27, 49ers 13
While it will be a successful season compared to most of the recent decade, the 49ers will once again fall short of the Super Bowl.
In the passing era that the NFL is currently in, it is not likely that we will see a game manager like Alex Smith win a championship. After the season is over, the 49ers will concentrate on re-signing the quality players they have and again look for more offense.
Unfortunately, this may mean that the franchise starts looking for Alex Smith’s replacement. If Colin Kaepernick has not shown enough progression to challenge for the starter’s spot in 2013, look for the 49ers to go after Joe Flacco in free agency (if he is not franchise-tagged) or to move up in the draft to get a quarterback.