The San Francisco 49ers have started the 2011 season with a surprising 4-1 record. They lead the NFC West by two full games over the second-place Seattle Seahawks. The last time the 49ers started the season this well was in 2002, also their last playoff season in San Francisco.
This early season success raises the question, are the 49ers a lock to win the NFC West?
The 49ers have won two road games and have played inspired football, improving as the season has progressed. The Niners also have five games remaining against the other NFC West divisional opponents, which bodes well because the NFC West is the weakest division in the league.
Offensively, the biggest improvement for the 49ers has been the play of Alex Smith. He has done a good job managing the game and protecting the ball. His completion percentage is 65.9 and his quarterback rating of 104.1 ranks fourth in the NFL.
Smith has thrown seven touchdown passes against only one interception. This is a prime example of his improvement, especially considering Smith has done this with an offensive line that played poorly over the first three games
Frank Gore seems to be back on track after a rough first three games. The offensive line has improved over the past two games and provided running lanes for Gore, and he has responded with back-to-back 100-yard games. Gore's backup, Kendall Hunter, also has given the 49ers a big-play threat in their rushing attack.
Head coach Jim Harbaugh has done an excellent job of utilizing two of his biggest weapons, tight ends Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker. With a receiving corps that has been banged up, Davis and Walker have stepped forward and become the 49ers' best receiving threats.
Defensively, the 49er front seven has been strong all year. They have been especially solid against the run and are ranked fifth in the league, holding the opposition to only 76.4 rushing yards per game.
The pass defense is a work in progress but has been showing improvement as the season progresses. The 49ers currently rank 23rd in the league in yards allowed through the air.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers has led an opportunistic defensive secondary with three interceptions in the past three games. The return of safety Dashon Goldson, sufficiently recovered from an injury that caused him to miss the first two games, has also been a benefit to the 49er defense.
The 49ers are a team on the rise and all signs point to them winning the NFC West. However, to consider it a lock would be both premature and foolish.
Despite all the positive momentum the 49ers are building, they are still not a lock to win the division. The main reason for this is because of the potential for injury to any of their top players.
We have already seen how devastated the Indianapolis Colts have been without Peyton Manning. Houston's loss of star defender Mario Williams was also a big factor in its loss to the Raiders this past Sunday.
Heaven forbid, but if the 49ers were to lose any key players to injury, all of their success will go up in smoke. The 49ers lost starting wide receivers Braylon Edwards (for several games) and Joshua Morgan (for the season, due to a broken ankle).
There are five critical players the 49ers cannot afford to lose, or the team will struggle. On offense, these players are Alex Smith, Frank Gore and Vernon Davis. Defensively, the 49ers can ill afford to lose Patrick Willis or Justin Smith.
If any of these players are lost for an extended time, the 49ers will suffer. While I think the 49ers have the inside track at winning the NFC West, it is far from a conclusive lock.