San Francisco 49ers 2011 Preview: A Realistic Road to the Postseason

Owen Clark@@OwenDClarkCorrespondent IIISeptember 10, 2011

San Francisco 49ers 2011 Preview: A Realistic Road to the Postseason

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    In a welcome change, the San Francisco 49ers will enter the 2011 regular season without the heavy burden of overinflated expectations.

    These past few summers the 49ers have been more overrated than Mila Kunis, a sexy sleeper pick despite no recent history of actual success.

    Because of all the hype, it was tough for even the most jaded fan, myself included, not to get their hopes up in August, only to have them crushed by mid-October.

    This year things are different. San Francisco has been mentioned far more as a candidate for the Andrew Luck sweepstakes than the Super Bowl.

    Unlike their predecessors, who made bold predictions about success, Jim Harbaugh and Trent Baalke have done a fantastic job of lowering expectations.

    The failed to sign any big-name free agents, got rid of half-a-dozen starters on defense and brought in two quarterbacks who have combined for zero NFL starts to back up the much maligned Alex Smith.

    Throw in a couple of dismal preseason performances and you’d have to be a fool to expect San Francisco to be a Super Bowl contender.

    Fortunately, the 49ers still play in the worst division in football, so while a championship remains a pipe dream, the postseason is a real possibility.

    As recent sports history—and three Mighty Ducks movies—have proven, the underdog remains a premier position from which to achieve success.

    Here are five steps the 49ers need to take this season to enjoy a Andrew Dice Clay-like return to prominence in 2011. 

Win 5 in the Division

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    If the 49ers are going to rise to prominence, they are going to do it on the backs of the other teams in the NFC West.

    It’s hard to imagine a scenario where San Francisco makes a playoff run without dominating the division, both because of the advantage it gives them in tiebreakers and because wins anywhere else are going to be tough to come by.

    The schedule makers did the 49ers no favors by pitting them against the AFC North and NFC East, and even a matchup with the once lowly Lions in Detroit suddenly looks like a notch in the loss column.

    Best guess says the 49ers need to finish at least 5-1 against the NFC West to be in playoff contention, which means a sweep at home and stealing two games on the road, most likely in Arizona and Seattle.

    I hate to be one of those guys who overstates the importance Week 1, but dropping a home game to the Seahawks to start the year could put Harbaugh and Co. in a hole they never dig themselves out of. 

Inflate Alex Smith’s Ego

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    It’s a depressing reality, but the 49ers have once again hitched their playoff wagon to Alex Smith, which means Harbaugh’s talents as the QB Whisperer are going to immediately be put to the test.

    So often heralded as a cerebral person, the tendency to over-analyze everything has been the downfall of Alex Smith the quarterback.

    It only takes a few small mistakes for Alex’s lingering self-doubt to overwhelm him. Once that happens, he holds the ball for even longer, refuses to look downfield and generally performs like a guy who is thinking about failure instead of planning for success.  

    Smith is like your buddy who starts the night at the bar brimming with swagger, but once he’s shot down by a single girl, he starts pounding drinks and complaining about how this place is lame.  

    What Smith needs is a great wingman, someone who refuses to let him pine quietly over his beer and instead drags him over to the drunken bachelorette party.

    As a former signal-caller himself, I think Harbaugh understands the fragile psyche of his starting QB, hence the public love affair with Smith during the lockout and the refusal to sign a backup who can provide even a modicum of competition.

    San Francisco’s only chance for success is if Harbaugh can inflate Smith’s ego to the point that he throws downfield with confidence and lets go of mistakes instead of dwelling endlessly on them. 

Finish the Upset

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    The past few seasons for the 49ers would have been drastically different had it not been for a Hail Mary and a fumbled interception.

    2009: If the San Francisco secondary can keep an aging Brett Favre from heaving the ball into the back of the end zone, they go to 3-0, score a road victory over a team that would make the NFC Championship and go into a matchup with the awful Rams, looking like the clear favorites in the NFC West.

    2010: If Nate Clements just falls down after making that fourth-quarter interception, the 49ers grab a road win against an NFC juggernaut and are suddenly brimming with confidence entering a four-game stretch of very winnable games. If San Francisco goes 3-1 over that span, they are sitting at 4-4 heading into the bye and suddenly very much in contention for the division crown.

    I understand the preceding scenarios involved a lot of “if’s,” but for a team trying desperately to build a successful franchise, those upsets are the games that set the foundation for success.   

    Either through solid play, or dumb luck, the 49ers figure to be in contention to win a game early in the season against a superior opponent (Dallas, Philadelphia or Detroit).

    When that opportunity presents itself, San Francisco can’t afford to literally, or figuratively, drop the ball.  

Keep Frank Fresh

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    Frank Gore has a finite amount of miles left on the tires. If San Francisco is serious about the playoffs, they need to ensure he’s fresh for the stretch run.

    Four of the 49ers' final five games are against division opponents, including a Week 16 matchup in Seattle and a Week 17 tilt in St. Louis.

    Barring a complete collapse, or a stunning run of success, San Francisco’s season will be decided in that final month.

    In order to get the most out of Gore at the end, to start things off, Harbaugh needs to treat his star runner like an ace hurler on a pitch count.

    Anthony Dixon should be used in short-yardage situations where he can use his bulk to push the pile, and speedy Kendall Hunter should come in for 3rd-and-long when Harbaugh goes with a draw or a screen to maintain field position and avoid a sack.

    Most importantly, when a game is out of reach, Gore needs to be firmly planted on the sideline. If San Francisco is trailing 35-7 in Philly and Frank is running two-yard off tackles, I’m going to throw my remote at the television.  

Finish 9-7

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    The NFC West figures to be awful again this season, but it’s unreasonable to expect it to be as historically putrid as last season, when Seattle won the division a game under .500.

    Given the general chaos created by the lockout, and the number of teams that figure to be tanking for a shot at Andrew Luck, I expect the 49ers will need to notch a 9-7 record for a shot at the division title.

    That means along with the aforementioned five wins in the division, and the one early upset against a contender, San Francisco needs to find a way to scratch out three more wins on their remaining schedule.

    Go ahead and pencil in games at Baltimore and against Pittsburgh in the L column, which leaves: at Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, at Washington and the New York Giants.

    So essentially, San Francisco needs to finish 3-2 against those five opponents to make the playoffs, a difficult but not impossible goal.

    Obviously there a multitude of other roads San Francisco could take to reach the playoffs, but given all the factors once again swirling around this turbulent franchise, the path I’ve lined out seems like the smoothest road to take.