I've read through all the major football preview publications, Athlon, Lindy's, Sporting News etc., and generally found roughly the same predictions in all three of them. A speedy recovery for Tom Brady, a sharp downfall for the Buccaneers, and yet another mediocre campaign for the Buffalo Bills.
They all seemed to have missed out one thing, though. The potential for a breakout season for one of football's most consistently down-on their-luck teams, the San Francisco 49ers.
Considering how strong they looked at the end of last season, this is a bit surprising. After a dismal 3-8 start, they finished 4-1, with their only loss coming in a close one against a determined, overachieving Dolphins team. It's hard to be pessimistic when looking like the Niners did at the end of last year.
Their success towards the end of 2008 can be attributed to 2 things.
First, the rise of Mike Singletary to head coach. He came under fire for the infamous "pants-dropping" incident, and for his harsh criticism of Vernon Davis. That being said, in the end he proved to be just what the team needed, the type of no-nonsense coach who could get the team to reach their full potential. This year, he's had a whole off-season to get his team ready, and they are sure to benefit from that time. He knows what he's doing with this team.
The other key ingredient to the Niners strong finish was Shaun Hill's taking over as the starting QB. Hill has performed well at the end of last two seasons but no one's paid him much attention. Possibly because he wasn't a first round draft pick, and no one has much incentive to believe in him. Still, with a record of 7-3 as the starter, he's shown that he is more than capable of leading the 49ers to victory.
Chances are, Alex Smith will compete for the job, simply due to the obscene amount of money that #1 overall picks are paid. But if the Niners have a brain in their head, they'll go with the only player who's given them any success since Jeff Garcia skipped town 6 years ago.
Finally, no one can forget about the addition of rookie receiver Michael Crabtree. In college, he demonstrated explosive breakaway ability, and he has the size and speed to succeed in the NFL. He provides Hill with an easy target, which should take some of the pressure off him.
Add to this an improving defense anchored by Patrick Willis and veteran Nate Clements, and you've got reason to believe the 49ers can compete, especially in a division as weak as the NFC West. Even if the Arizona Cardinals can avoid the so-called "Super Bowl loser curse" (they have a better chance than most), they still have a decent shot to take the division and perhaps compete for an NFC title.
It's easy to mock the 49ers, but don't be surprised if they come out looking strong in September.