There is no easy road to the Super Bowl, just teams that make it seem like it exists.
The key to reaching the Super Bowl isn't just to plow over every opponent in an easy-as-possible schedule. No, the truly dominant teams that make their path to a potential Lombardi Trophy look simple do it by dispatching all comers, including the NFL's best teams.
That's why the team that seems like they have the easiest road to the Super Bowl this year is the San Francisco 49ers, even though they won't travel the path of least resistance to get there.
Among the 2012 playoff teams, there are many others with an easier strength-of-schedule than the 49ers, including the Denver Broncos and Houston Texans. But strength-of-schedule isn't a terrific indicator of how a team may perform.
Look at 2012's strength-of-schedule rankings: the eventual Super Bowl winners, the Baltimore Ravens, had the fourth-most difficult schedule of the season, and the Denver Broncos, also a playoff team, had the second-hardest. And the relatively easier schedules of the New England Patriots and Green Bay Packers may have given both teams a leg up in their run to the playoffs, but it didn't help either ultimately get to the Super Bowl, as they faced a caliber of team they rarely saw in the regular season.
Further, strength-of-schedule is solely determined by the win-loss records of a team's set of opponents in the previous season. In the time between the final snap of the 2012 season and the first of 2013, teams undergo a number of changes, some of them significant—such as bringing on a new starting quarterback or coaching staff—that can greatly alter their ability to win games.
What matters most is consistency, though not to a compulsive degree. On the one hand, a team like the 49ers—who just came off of a Super Bowl loss—wants to keep things the same in hopes that it again produces a year in which they reach the big game again. But on the other, successful teams have to avoid hanging onto the past instead of seeing how key changes can actually make them stronger.
The 49ers have balanced these two priorities well in the offseason. They weren't beholden to many of their own free agents, having re-signed just two—safety Darcel McBath and cornerback Tramaine Brock—while adding impact players from the open market, like reliable veteran kicker Phil Dawson and cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
Which team do you think has the best shot of reaching the Super Bowl this year?
The Niners also traded one of their many draft picks for wide receiver Anquan Boldin and allowed backup quarterback Alex Smith leave for the Kansas City Chiefs rather than letting him languish behind Colin Kaepernick, and picked up Colt McCoy in trade to back him up instead.
In the draft, the 49ers ultimately made 11 selections—an embarrassment of riches for one of the NFL's most talented, balanced and well-developed rosters.
The fact that the 49ers already had so many high-performing players allowed them to be creative and almost indulgent in their selections—like running back Marcus Lattimore, whom they took in the fourth round and who will spend his rookie season off the field with ample time to recover from his devastating 2012 knee injury.
They also added specialized defensive talent like Tank Carradine, Eric Reid and Corey Lemonier who should all see time on the field in 2013, helping boost an already scary side of the ball.
With their roster shored up, the Niners look poised to be stronger in 2013 than in 2012. However, that's but one step to a Super Bowl appearance. There are other, strategic concerns that must be addressed for the Niners to get there.
The main one is their offense. The Niners were wildly successful when Kaepernick took over starting quarterback duties for Smith last year, running a read-option offense that resulted in 1.3 rushing touchdowns per game, 164.6 rushing yards per game and 8.4 rushing first downs per game while calling running plays an average of 31.3 times per game.
However, the success of the Niners' run-heavy read-option offense means two things: Other squads will try to copy them and defenses will be tuned to stop it.
The Niners' 2012 employment of the read-option focused more on the legs of Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore. Defenses' inability to stop the run resulted in Kaepernick throwing just 218 passes, with 136 completions for 1,814 yards, 10 touchdowns and three interceptions in the regular season. While an effective passer, Kaepernick didn't have to do it as much as others around the league. With defenses likely keying in on the run this season, he'll need to start throwing the ball more.
Passing the ball will be a little more difficult now that star 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree has apparently torn his Achilles tendon in OTAs. As CBS Sports' Will Brinson points out, Crabtree averaged 6.1 catches, 88 yards and .8 touchdowns per game last year when paired with Kaepernick, easily making him the team's most productive receiver.
However, without Crabtree, the Niners still have reliable possession receiver Boldin, A.J. Jenkins, rookie Quinton Patton and tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald. They will also get receivers Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams back from their respective ACL tears, and running backs Gore and LaMichael James are also both adept at catching passes. Not having Crabtree creates a void, but it's one that can be adequately filled.
Looking specifically at the 49ers' schedule for 2013 certainly presents some difficulties. They open their season against the Packers, whom the Niners shredded in the playoffs; and then take on division rivals the Seattle Seahawks, who themselves also made the postseason last year thanks to their spin on the read-option offense paired with a brutal defense—sound familiar?
Though there are stretches that appear easier than others—like Weeks 6 through 8, when they face the Arizona Cardinals, Tennessee Titans and Jacksonville Jaguars—the Niners cannot take any of these teams lightly. With the NFC West becoming stronger, there will be less margin for error, whether when facing in-division opponents or those from the outside.
The 49ers have a shoulder-chip on their side, at least—their Super Bowl loss. It's not something they will soon forget, nor something that head coach Jim Harbaugh will let them forget. The dreaded "Super Bowl hangover" rarely extends to the game's loser, for there are no laurels to rest on. There are few things comforting about being the second-best team in the NFL; the goal is to finally become the best.
The Niners have a massive store of both momentum and talent, a difficult but not unmanageable schedule that provides them with high-caliber tests, the motivating disappointment of a Super Bowl loss fresh in their memories and few overall deficiencies with their game.
Though we're still in the month of May, with a long stretch of anything-can-happen between now and the first Sunday in February, it's not too crazy to think that of any team in the NFL, the San Francisco 49ers have the best shot at a Super Bowl appearance this season.