Colin Kaepernick has won his two starts for the 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers defeated the New Orleans Saints and hold a record of 8-2-1, with five weeks remaining in the season. Head coach Jim Harbaugh has his team on the right course for a trip to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers' defense was outstanding and delivered two pick-six interception returns. Offensively, Colin Kaepernick gives the 49ers a dynamic, big-play threat, if he remains the starting quarterback for the remainder of the season.
Let's take a closer look at five key things that will pave the 49ers' road to the Super Bowl with gold.
Frank Gore is having a tremendous season
Playing at home does not guarantee victory in the playoffs, as the 49ers found out last season. However, it does give you a better chance, and there's nothing better than playing in front of your loyal and raucous fans in the postseason.
The 49ers trail the Atlanta Falcons for the top seed in the NFC. The Falcons are 10-1, but are entering the toughest stretch on their schedule in these next five weeks. If the Falcons slip up, the 49ers could seize the home-field advantage.
With a game-and-a-half lead over the New York Giants for the second seed in the NFC, the 49ers are in position to earn the first-round bye in the playoffs. If they maintain this position, they will host one game in the playoffs at a minimum.
Andy Lee is having another outstanding year
Special teams was a big strength of the 49ers in 2011. This season, the story has been entirely different.
Outside of punter Andy Lee, who is having another Pro Bowl-caliber season, the 49ers have not played well on special teams. This is an area they must improve, as mistakes can cost the 49ers a game.
Placekicker David Akers has converted only 70.4 percent of his field-goal attempts, which is the lowest mark of his career.
The 49ers' coverage units had several problems earlier this year, allowing several long returns. This group seems to have improved over the last couple of weeks, as special teams coach Brad Seely has inserted starting linebacker NaVorro Bowman on the coverage units.
Allowing long returns can turn the momentum of a game, and the 49ers' coverage units must become more consistent in this area.
The 49ers' return game has also been lackluster. They have not had a touchdown return all season. The one thing the 49ers cannot afford is to turn the ball over in the return game. Two costly turnovers by Kyle Williams cost the 49ers dearly in the NFC title game last year.
This past Sunday against the Saints, Ted Ginn muffed a punt, which the Saints recovered deep in 49er territory. This is the type of costly mistake that the 49ers simply cannot afford.
If the 49ers are to make it to the Super Bowl, their special teams need improvement and greater consistency.
The 49ers signed former Giant Mario Manningham in the offseason
The team that has given Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers the most trouble is the New York Giants. The Giants beat the 49ers in the NFC championship game last season and put a decisive beating on the 49ers earlier this year.
The Giants pummeled the 49ers 26-3 in Week 6 of the season. I believe the decisiveness of this defeat forced Harbaugh to think of how the 49ers can overcome the Giants if they meet again in the playoffs.
Historically, we have seen 49er teams have one arch nemesis that kept them from advancing in the postseason. In the early 1970's, it was the Dallas Cowboys who thwarted John Brodie and the 49ers from a trip to the Super Bowl.
When the 49ers defeated the Cowboys in the 1981 playoffs, it signaled an end to the black cloud that Dallas had over the 49ers. Steve Young also had his own nemesis in the Green Bay Packers. When he finally defeated them, it was almost as if the Super Bowl victory was a foregone conclusion.
For Harbaugh and this group of 49ers, that roadblock is the Giants. If the 49ers meet the Giants in the postseason, they will need to find a way to beat them. Harbaugh has already begun putting the plan in place, as we are likely to see Colin Kaepernick attempt to use his talents to vanquish the Giants.
Aldon Smith and Justin Smith combine on this sack
The San Francisco 49ers lead the NFL in fewest points allowed. The 49ers' defense has been improving over the past two weeks, although they have and a few troubling games.
The 49ers' defense struggled with the Giants, Rams and Vikings. In each case, the pass coverage broke down, allowing big gains. The key for the 49ers' pass defense is to get good pressure on the opposing quarterback.
We saw how a strong pass rush can disrupt even the one of the best quarterbacks in the league. The 49ers' pressured and punished Saints' quarterback Drew Brees and forced him into mistakes. Interceptions by Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner were returned for touchdowns, and Brees was not able to get the high-powered Saints' offense running efficiently.
The strong pass rush effectively covers up any potential weaknesses in the 49ers' secondary. Aldon Smith has come on strong of late and leads the league in sacks. He and Justin Smith lead the pass rush for the 49ers.
The 49ers' linebacker corps is arguably the best in the league, with Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman, Smith and Brooks all playing at an incredibly high level.
Safeties Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner are fierce hitters, and opposing receivers don't like going over the middle against these two. If corners Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers and nickel back Chris Culliver hold their own, this defense will lead the 49ers to the promised land.
We've heard it before that "defense wins championships" and the 49ers have a championship-caliber defense.
Colin Kaepernick gives the 49ers a big-play threat
The San Francisco 49ers have two quarterbacks who are qualified NFL starters. Head coach Jim Harbaugh must decide on the direction the 49ers' offense will take and who will be at the controls.
Alex Smith knows the system better than anybody and has shown tremendous leadership throughout his career. Smith's knowledge enables him to put the 49ers in the right play call at the line of scrimmage. He also knows all of the routes precisely, so he can quickly find alternate receivers if his first option is covered.
Patrick Willis is a leader of the 49ers' defense
Anything less than a Super Bowl will be a big disappointment for the 49ers and their fans. They have all the pieces in place to win it all this season.
One additional key is that the core must stay healthy. The 49ers just lost receiver and return-man Kyle Williams. He will be out for the year with a torn ACL.
The 49ers can ill afford injuries to key players. If they stay healthy, this could be the season where the 49ers regain their place at the top of the football world.