For the first time since the 2002 season, the San Francisco 49ers are headed to the playoffs. At 10-3, the Niners have clinched the NFC West title and are now in position to secure a first-round bye in the coming weeks.
With their playoff tickets punched, we now have to ask ourselves: Could the 49ers actually win the Super Bowl?
The 49ers have shown success in all three phases of play (offense, defense and special teams) this season. Their stingy defense led by All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis is ranked fourth overall, with the top ranked run defense in the NFL. This defensive unit has not allowed a rushing touchdown and has only given up 862 rushing yards all season.
While the offense has been less than stellar—ranked 25th overall—they have had success under coach Jim Harbaugh's version of the West Coast Offense.
Their seventh-ranked rushing offense, led by running back Frank Gore, has been the key to the team's success on offense. It has also allowed quarterback, Alex Smith to finally grow into the passer the team has been lacking. His use of screens, play-action passes and deep ball ability has been an important factor in several big games.
Matchups will be the key to making a title run. San Francisco's defensive ability will keep them from getting into a shootout against a superior offense. They are tied for second in the NFL in interceptions and lead the NFL in turnover ratio with a plus-21.
They have proven themselves against playoff caliber teams. Against teams currently in the NFC playoff picture, the Niners are 4-2 with their two losses having a combined margin of only five points.
The Niners must keep the No. 2 seed to make a deep run. Furthermore, it is in their best interest to avoid playing on the road against the Saints, who are 6-0 at home and scoring 39.8 points per game.
If they can make it to the NFC title game, they will need to bring the pressure against Aaron Rodgers and the Packers. The defense has only allowed 20 points or more in four games and they are 2-2 in those games. They will have to control time of possession, limit turnovers and keep Rodgers on the sideline.
Should they make the Super Bowl, quarterback protection is a sticking point. The Ravens laid the blueprint with their constant chasing of Alex Smith on Thanksgiving night. Additionally, seven of the 10 teams in AFC playoff contention have defenses ranked in the top 10 of the conference.
Can coach Harbaugh pull off the unthinkable during his freshman year? It's definitely a possibility. They have the tools and they like to beat teams up. In the end, he may have to pull off an even bigger feat to get the trophy; beating his big brother John for it.