We're singling out one team from each division for Super Bowl consideration with seven weeks remaining in the 2012 regular season.
The San Francisco 49ers have for some time been the only NFC West team worth our consideration on that subject. Recent events suggest the Seattle Seahawks are gaining on them. The 49ers haven't looked quite as good lately, while the Seahawks have, by all appearances, an ascending young quarterback and bright prospects.
I'm expecting both teams to reach the postseason, but the 49ers remain the team to beat in this division. We all saw how close they came to the Super Bowl last season. They might own the best offensive line in the NFL. They've added weapons to address the third-down issues that factored heavily into their troubles against the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game. For stretches, they have played like the best team in the NFL.
San Francisco 49ers Defensive Stats
We know how good the 49ers can be. I'll be watching to see how they fare in a few areas before anointing them for a championship run:
QB health: Alex Smith started 18 games last season, counting playoffs. His line is playing very well, but Smith still has taken more sacks (68) than any quarterback since the start of last season. I wondered before the season whether he would hold up as well, given Smith's injury history and the difficulty quarterbacks have staying healthy in general. The concussion Smith suffered against St. Louis in Week 10 renews those questions. Smith suffered the concussion on a fourth-and-1 sneak. The 49ers might not have been in that situation if Smith hadn't taken a 7-yard sack on the same set of downs. His protection was poor on that sack.
Defensive staying power: Defense remains a strength of the 49ers, but fatigue is a potential concern. The 49ers entered the season with the NFL's oldest starting defensive line. They have gone through this season relying on 10 of their 11 defensive starters to play 90-plus percent of the snaps. That is a league-high figure. Might the defensive core wear down as the playoffs approach? Three of the 49ers' past four opponents have produced a 100-yard rusher against a defense that almost never permitted them previously. Opposing quarterbacks have fared better overall against the 49ers this season. That's apparent in the chart, which shows San Francisco dropping from fourth last season to 15th this season in Total QBR allowed.
Freeing up Davis: Tight end Vernon Davis had 10 receptions for 292 yards and four touchdowns in two playoff games last season. He has largely disappeared as a receiving target in recent weeks. Offensive diversification could explain some of the change. Davis remains the most dynamic offensive weapon on the team, however. Re-establishing him as a threat would only help the 49ers' championship chances.
Those are a few things to consider longer term. We'll also find out what the other NFC West teams have to say about the matter. The 49ers still have divisional road games against Seattle and St. Louis, plus trips to New Orleans and New England.