Boasting a 7-1 record, the San Francisco 49ers have been the most surprising success in football in 2011.
It's easy to write them off as simply a feel-good story, a team with a good, but empty record. But it would be foolish to dismiss them as Super Bowl contenders.
Here is why the Niners could crash the Super Bowl XLVI party.
"Defense wins championships" is the most cliche phrase in football; that isn't to say it's not valid.
The 49ers have a stellar front seven that regularly suffocates opponents. Their performance against the run is staggering. They gave up less than 71 rushing yards a game, outpacing the next best rush defense by nearly 15 yards.
While the pass defense is less heralded, it's almost as effective. It ranks in the top 10 in interceptions, sacks and opponent passer rating.
The D is capable of stopping both NFC playoff foes and a potential AFC Super Bowl opponent.
The Niners are rightfully thought of as a defense-heavy team. That's not to discount their extremely efficient offense, however.
The offense has scored just under 26 points a game, good for eighth in the NFL. The main weapon is RB Frank Gore, who is having the best season of his career. After having his franchise record fifth consecutive 100-yard game, Gore is on pace for over 1,500 rushing yards. Credit should also be given to the vastly improved offensive line.
The success of the running game has perfectly matched Jim Harbaugh's smash-mouth style of football.
Jim Harbaugh deserves much of the credit from turning around Alex Smith's career. But Smith had also been improving before Harbaugh came to San Francisco.
In his last 16 games, Smith has thrown for 22 touchdowns with only seven interceptions. It's safe to say this year is no fluke.
A parallel can be drawn between Smith and Trent Dilfer, who led the Baltimore Ravens to a victory in Super Bowl XXXV. However, Smith is becoming more than a game manager.
He's turned into a legitimate offensive threat.
Why is this important to their Super Bowl hopes? Simply because winning the Lombardi Trophy would likely mean having to win the NFC Championship on Lombardi's home turf, Lambeau Field, home of the Green Bay Packers.
Winning a game on the road against Aaron Rodgers and company would be an incredibly difficult accomplishment. But if anyone could do it, it's the San Francisco 49ers.