Discussions in the preseason were focused on how many games the team would win in the regular season. Now the dialogue has shifted, and some are predicting the 49ers to win more postseason games than they originally thought they would win in the regular season.
Improvements by many key players, offseason acquisitions and of course Jim Harbaugh are among the many reasons the 49ers have made such sizable leaps this year. These improvements have led to a change in expectations for many 49er fans.
At first, the 2011 season was supposed to separate the wheat from the chaff, it was supposed to show which 49ers would stick around for the real turnaround in 2012, but now expectations have changed. The 49ers themselves have shown a real ability to win a Super Bowl.
The transformation from NFL doormats to Super Bowl champions is not complete. There are still areas in which the team can improve upon if they wish to take the Lombardi trophy from its homeland in Green Bay back to its rightful resting spot in the city by the bay.
The San Francisco 49ers have shown depth in many positions, but in order to win the Lombardi Trophy, the team must have its best players available for the crucial January games.
Injuries such as the one to Josh Morgan cannot happen. Players such as Anthony Davis, Braylon Edwards and Bruce Miller must be at full strength when the games matter most.
And the player on the team they cannot afford to lose more than anyone, is Frank Gore. Gore has not played a full slate of games since his second year in the league. Kendall Hunter has proved to be a suitable backup, but he is not Frank Gore and cannot run between the tackles like Gore can.
The 49ers have a great defense, maybe the best in the NFL. So to call their secondary a weakness isn't exactly fair. Their secondary could be a strength to some NFL defenses, but when you play with the likes of Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, you have to be great.
And Carlos Rogers and company, are not that.
You could argue that seeing as they have 15 interceptions (14 by the secondary and good for second in the NFL), the secondary should be a strong suit. But too many times, they give up too many yards to good quarterbacks. And still too many times, I see the cornerbacks get beat deep.
Think about the potential quarterbacks they will have to face on the road to a Super Bowl. Tony Romo, Matthew Stafford and Eli Manning have all been faced, and taken care of to a certain extent. But looming large are the likes of Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers in the NFC playoffs.
When you want to ride a defense to the Super Bowl, all phases of the defenses must excel.
The 49ers can get to the quarterback as well as just about any team in the league. The problem is sometimes they get there just a hair too late.
They are the 17th-best team as far as sacks go with 21. But when you add quarterback hits and quarterback hurries, the 49ers get closer to the top.
A solid argument for the 49ers' ability to rush the passer is they usually don't rush more than four people and almost never more than five. So when they rank where they rank, it should be taken as a positive.
This argument is similar to the secondary argument. Yeah, it's a good pass-rush, but we are talking Super Bowl here. If you want to throw Brady and Rodgers off their games, you need to disrupt them and disrupt them quickly.
The 49ers are an abysmal 27th in the league in third-down efficiency. They convert just under 32 percent of the time. Compare that to the best team in the league, the New Orleans Saints, who convert at a rate of 54 percent.
When you want to ride a defense to a championship, it has to be rested. If it's going to be rested, it needs to stay off the field while the offense moves the chains and eats up the clock.
At least fourth-down efficiency is good at 67 percent.
The 49ers are ranked even lower in converting red-zone opportunities to touchdowns. They convert at a rate of 42 percent, good for 28th in the league. Compare that to the best team in the league at red-zone touchdowns, the Titans (who would have thought?) at 73 percent.
It's not all bad news for San Francisco in the red zone. They have a kicker who is near-automatic, and a quarterback who just threw his second career red-zone interception on Sunday and his first of the year.
Their ability to always come away with points and not turn the ball over are important attributes. But when you have the ability to put sevens on the board, you must do it.
There is much debate as to how to label Alex Smith and the 49ers' passing game. Everything from game manager to elite quarterback have been thrown around to describe him.
The thing is, the 49ers need him to be more than a game manager, and he is. But they don't need him to be an elite quarterback, and he is not.
Alex Smith is undoubtedly improving every day and every game, but he still misses too many receivers. Whether it's a pass that's too high for Braylon Edwards in the end zone or a throw to Michael Crabtree on third down that bounces two feet in front of him, Alex Smith cannot miss his open targets.
If you want Alex Smith to join the conversation of elite quarterbacks, or more likely the tier just below it, then look at two stats: third-down conversions and red-zone conversions.
The 49ers have six games left, two against Baltimore and Pittsburgh, and four against the NFC West. Nobody expects double-digit wins against the Ravens or Steelers. Wins there will be hard-fought, tough, physical and likely low-scoring.
But when you play the Seahawks, Cardinals and Rams, you need to win, and you need to win BIG!!! The 49ers should have beat Arizona by 30 and that is being conservative. They should pad their offensive and defensive stats against the lower teams in the league and the win against Tampa Bay should be their model.
Champions don't just beat bad teams, they dominate bad teams.