5 Reasons to Believe the San Francisco 49ers Could Be a Playoff Team in 2011

Gordon BlockContributor IIIJuly 29, 2011

5 Reasons to Believe the San Francisco 49ers Could Be a Playoff Team in 2011

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    I’m not going to lie to you: the San Francisco 49ers are a long shot of making the playoffs this season.

    The team has missed the playoffs every season since 2002 and the struggles of the past few years have not appeared to be resolved. For this team to win, there are clear areas where dramatic improvement has to be made.

    With that said, I hate playing Debbie Downer. There has to be a reason to look forward to the upcoming season. There have to be a few slivers of hope that this will be the year the 49ers return to their winning ways.

    Here are five reasons to hold out hope for a shot for the postseason in 2011.

Jim Harbaugh Will Motivate the Team

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    While it seems like the past ten years of 49ers football has been a coaches’ merry-go-round, there is a lot to like about Jim Harbaugh. While this is his first head-coaching gig in the NFL, his ability to develop talent (especially at the quarterback position) will be visible almost immediately.

    The road will not be easy (early injuries are not helping), but Harbaugh could be the one to lead the 49ers to the playoff promised land.

    One caveat is that the extended lockout means Harbaugh will only have a few weeks to attempt to install an entirely new system for the upcoming season. Rome was not built in a day, and most playoff teams aren't completely assembled in less than a month.

The NFC West Is Still Pretty Lousy

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    They may not be the biggest contenders in the NFL or NFC, but the 49ers are definite contenders in a continually underwhelming NFC West division.

    Look at the competition.

    The Arizona Cardinals have placed their season on quarterback Kevin Kolb, who has with only seven starts to his name. The addition of Kolb is dampened by the Cardinals’ lackluster offensive line that will create problems almost immediately in pass protection.

    The Seattle Seahawks for some reason felt it was better to dump Pro Bowler and Super Bowl starter Matt Hasselbeck to put in the continuously underwhelming Tarvaris Jackson. Additionally, the team’s signing of Sidney Rice screams of the same desperation that led to the signing and overpaying of T.J. Houshmandzadeh and Deion Branch.

    The St. Louis Rams, while led by a young solid quarterback in Sam Bradford, struggled frequently throughout the season to put points on the board. The team has been lackluster in their rushing attack, essentially running their star back Steven Jackson into the ground.

    There’s a good chance the 49ers can put up a decent record against its divisional rivals.

The Ground Game Has Slowly Improved in the Past Few Seasons

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    Yes, Frank Gore’s status in the short-term is in question following his holdout for a new contract. However, this has overshadowed the fact that the 49ers’ ground game has steadily improved in the past few seasons (shown best by the team’s improvement in the team’s rushing yardage ranking).

    2008:  27th—1,599 yards

    2009:  25th—1,600 yards 

    2010:  19th—1,657 yards

    The numbers in 2010 came even with the integration of two rookie offensive lineman, a new center and injuries to Gore which cost him a few games.

    If Gore can limit his injuries (and get his contract issues resolved), he can form a solid platoon with Anthony Dixon and rookie Kendall Hunter to continue the team’s rise in rushing.

The Strength of Schedule Is Low

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    Despite the team’s faults, the 49ers do have a substantial advantage in the scheduling department.

    The 49ers go into the 2011 season with the 30th hardest schedule, with their opponents win percentage at .465.

    When you have the kind of roster holes the 49ers do, sometimes luck plays a bigger role than talent.

The 49ers Have Patrick Willis

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    It’s tough to lose hope on the 49ers when they have talents like Patrick Willis. The mega-talented linebacker has been the heart of the defense, if not the entire squad.

    Willis, who has vented on his frustrations about losing, comes into the season fully rested and ready to make opposing offenses pay.

    While there are no doubts about the quality of play of Willis, there are certainly plenty of questions on who will fill out the rest of the defense. If the 49ers could find more players with both heart and skill like Willis, they would have moved to the playoffs years ago.