Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 8/20/12
After a miraclous 2011 campaign ended in heartbreak, Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers have their eye on the ultimate prize in 2012.

In their way is a tougher schedule that includes the top three offenses in the league - Green Bay, New Orleans, and New England - as well as a date with last year's Super Bowl Champions, the New York Giants.

The best-case scenario, then, for this San Francisco squad is the Super Bowl itself.  

Only a year removed from their NFC Championship Game defeat, the fan base believes Harbaugh is ready to take this team back to its dynastic qualities of the 1980s and 90s.  

They return all 11 starters on the league's most all-around elite defense, and even produced what they believe will be an upgrade at outside linebacker, where Aldon Smith will replace Parys Haralson after Smith was primarily played on 3rd downs or in obvious passing situations as a pass rusher.

The rookie acquired 14.5 sacks - half a sack away from the rookie sack record - and will be expected to play against the run this year as well. But, if it does not work out, Haralson is still on the roster and can be brought back in instead.

So not only does this defense have stars, including the best linebacking duo in the NFL in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, but they have depth. After the additions last year of Donte Whitner and Carlos Rogers worked out very well, the team this year added Perrish Cox for depth to their secondary, and sophomore Chris Culliver is developing well after having strong performances last season.

And for the big men up front in what is arguably the best front seven in all of football, Justin Smith will return after another stellar season where he finally began to get the public praise he has deserved for years. He produced many highlights throughout the year, such as his game-saving fumble against the Eagles, or his game-closing pass block against New York, or his incredible bull rush through Pro Bowl tackle, Jermon Bushrod, and Drew Brees.  

Smith was ranked the second best player of 2011 by Pro Football Focus; and another man who made that list, defensive end Ray McDonald, joins him again this year in a unit that set an NFL record low for rushing touchdowns given up - only two all season long - and did not give up any rushing scores for the first 14 games of the season.

Yes, their defense is stacked.  And for special teams, they return punter Andy Lee, who set an NFL record for net punt yard average, and David Akers, who set an NFL record for most field goals in a season. They also return most their starters for a coverage unit that did not allow a single kick or punt return go for a touchdown all season long.

As for the offense, which had terrible 3rd-down conversion and red zone numbers, the 49ers went on a shopping spree of talent in the offseason. Their lack of success last season was due largely to having to start practice squad players at wide receiver for most of the year, and having one of the worst offensive lines in football.  

The 49ers let Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder - two of the main culprits - walk to other teams (the Bears and Cardinals, respectively), and replaced Snyder with Staley at right guard. That move is still a question mark, but the additions at wide receiver are not.

The 49ers signed Randy Moss to an incentive-laden, one-year contract, and also picked up former Giants receiver Mario Manningham. Both of these guys will get plenty of snaps this year, and that will help open things up for Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis - both of whom were used to seeing double coverage all last year due to the 49ers' lack of other options.

For the ground game, to support Frank Gore (who had yet another 1,000-yard season) and Kendal Hunter (who had a very solid rookie campaign), San Francisco added Oregon back, LaMichael James, and another former Giant, Brandon Jacobs.  

Jacobs in particular has lost weight and increased muscle, and has looked strong and fast in preseason. This team will boast one of the most talented backfields in the NFL in 2012.

So the squad will look for consistency from the defense and special teams, and they will look for improvement from the offense. They went out and added the talent for that improvement, so there will be no excuses for Alex Smith this year, and one should expect him to throw for more yards and more touchdowns.

How could anything go wrong then, you ask?  This team seems stacked at every position on both sides of the ball - with only the offensive line being the big question mark. Well, historically, teams that go from a losing record to a surprise 13-win season, regress the next year.

Several statistical-based football websites, such as Football Outsiders, have predicted the 49ers to garner only around 7-to-8 wins - and that may not be enough to make the playoffs.  Other research on teams that had similar large bumps in wins from one year to the next, showed a regression in year three, and that also suggests the team will have a hard time getting to even nine wins.

Also, Alex Smith tied an NFL record with only five interceptions, and he led the league in interception percentage. While one would expect his yardage totals and touchdown totals to increase in year two under Harbaugh's system, as well as his throws, one would also therefore expect more interceptions.

 Similarly, on the other side of the ball, the 49ers led the league in takeaways with 38, giving them a +28 differential. That is, historically, an almost-impossible number to replicate, and one would expect the team to produce less turnovers on defense, and give up more on offense.

While a +28 differential in 2012 is not necessary for the 49ers to do well, it did help them immensely last year. Along with their superior special teams plays, turnovers gave the 49ers the best average starting position in the entire NFL on offense, and gave opposing offenses the worst average starting position in the NFL. Anything less than +28 may cost them both field position and wins.

Therefore, the best-case scenario for this team - which returns all its starters on the most elite defense in the NFL, plus returns most of its special teams unit that is one of the best in the NFL - is the Super Bowl.

The 49ers have enough talent at almost every position to make a run at the greatest prize in American sports, and they have the defense and run game to get it done deep into the postseason.

If this team makes the playoffs, no one will want to play them. But some of the statistics say they might not be able to do that.

Regression is expected, but just how much is up for debate. If they regress as much as some of the analysis above suggests, and only win seven or eight games, they may miss the playoffs - even in the NFC West.  That would be a major disappointment, but the 49ers' worst-case scenario is clearly just that: a huge regression below .500.

Me personally, I put the over/under at 9 and would expect the team to hit above that. If they don't make that mark, they may miss the playoffs and a great opportunity to cement a legacy.

But if they get to 10 wins, they will make the playoffs. And if they do, then the 49ers have to be looked at as the odds-on favorite to take home the Lombardi Trophy. It is indeed Super Bowl or bust for Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers in 2012.

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