Nothing is more intimidating to other teams than when a playoff team, like the San Francisco 49ers, returns for another season with essentially the same roster and a few more powerful additions.
San Francisco had nine Pro Bowlers last season—Frank Gore, Joe Staley, Justin Smith, Patrick Willis, David Akers, Dashon Goldson, NaVorro Bowman, Andy Lee and Carlos Rogers—and they are all coming back for another run at the Super Bowl.
In addition to getting all these Pro Bowlers back, the 49ers attempted to strengthen their offensive core through free agency and the 2012 NFL draft. There have been some slight setbacks, but for the most part, I'd say things are looking really good for the 49ers again.
For instance, though the 49ers were hoping to get back one of their wide receivers, Josh Morgan, he decided to go elsewhere. But this actually turned out alright for the 49ers, because after losing Morgan, they picked up Randy Moss, signed Super Bowl champion Mario Manningham and drafted A.J. Jenkins.
To make things a little worse for other teams, the 49ers managed to snag another Super Bowl champ, Brandon Jacobs. Additionally, they decided to draft LaMichael James—as if the 49ers' run game wasn't good enough already.
All a team has to do to make it to the playoffs is win their division. While normally that's not an easy thing to do, it wasn't too difficult for the 49ers last season.
In the 2012 season, it may not be as easy to win the NFC West, but I don't think it'll be too difficult either.
Two of their division rivals, the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals, are still under some major offensive construction. For instance, both teams have yet to establish a quarterback that has proven he could be a starter.
In Arizona, Kevin Kolb and John Skelton will need to battle it out to see which one of them gets to throw the ball to Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. Kolb gets paid more, but Skelton won more games than him last season.
Likewise, Seattle's Pete Carroll swears that there will be open competition between Tarvaris Jackson and Matt Flynn. Jackson didn't have a great 2011 season, and Flynn was impressive as a backup in Green Bay. Unfortunately, Flynn won't have the same receivers in Seattle and will need to prove that he's just as good on another team. The Seahawks also drafted Russell Wilson, who may end up as a backup unless he looks phenomenal in camp.
The quarterback situation in Arizona and Seattle is only part of their struggles, though. The 49ers don't have the best quarterback, but their defense helped them win a ton of games. Unfortunately, the Cardinals and Seahawks don't have a defense like that.
But now take a look at the St. Louis Rams, who have other things to worry about besides a quarterback. The Rams will have to work extra hard this season to overcome their 2-14 record. They've hired a new coach and made some moves in the draft, but at the moment, there's no reason for a Ram fan to be optimistic about the their chances against the 49ers.
With the exception of the 49ers, the NFC West is still under crucial maintenance, and its other teams will have a lot of work to do in order to become playoff contenders.
Indeed, San Francisco may have a more difficult schedule than last year, but this shouldn't be that big of a deal. Last season the 49ers went 13-3, but to say that record is indicative of the teams they played is misguided. The 49ers beat the Cincinnati Bengals, Pittsburgh Steelers, New York Giants, Detroit Lions and New Orleans Saints—all five were playoff contenders.
The 49ers have proven that they can beat good teams because they are a good team.
There are, of course, some possible worries. First, there's the issue with Alex Smith and the amount of damage control that is needed to ensure there are no long-term effects resulting from the Peyton Manning pursuit.
Then there's the lack of consistency at the wide receiver position. The 49ers added some new talent, and it may take some time for them to adjust. Fortunately, unlike last season, the 49ers will have plenty of time to prepare for this season, and hopefully, it's enough time for the new wide receivers to become adjusted to the Harbaugh system.
I suppose the consistency issue can apply to the running backs as well, with the exception of Gore, that is. But truthfully, I don't think these issues will be issues at all. Harbaugh showed what he could do with a limited offseason. One can only imagine what he might do given a full offseason.
Keep in mind that the 49ers were really close to taking a trip the Super Bowl. And when I say "really close," I mean a one-turnover-and-field-goal-away kind of close. When a team is that close and returns loaded with more weapons, it makes them look even more intimidating.
It's true that the NFL is full of surprises, but there's one thing we know for sure: No team is looking to pull off an easy win against the 49ers.
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