Week 1: @ GB
The Niners will have their stones tested right out of the gate at Lambeau Field.
The Packers' defense met with a lot of criticism last season, and they'll have their hands full with Frank Gore, Vernon Davis, and Randy Moss. How much Alex Smith improves will obviously play a big role in whether or not the Niners win.
Week 2: vs. DET
The Lions will likely be looking to dish up some cold revenge in prime time after suffering their first defeat of the 2011 season at the hands of the 49ers. I'm sure Jim Schwartz would like nothing more than to give Jim Harbaugh a nice, big slap on the back after the game.
Week 3: @ MIN
San Francisco's defense will have their work cut out for them if Adrian Peterson is carrying the ball. How effective Christian Ponder and the Vikings' offense will be in the 2012 season is still up in the air, but labeling this game an easy win for the Niners could be a mistake.
Week 4: @ NYJ
Tebow. There I mentioned him. The 49ers' defense should be able to keep Sanchez & Co. at bay, but Harbaugh's run-heavy offense might have a long day ahead of them against Rex Ryan's defense.
Week 5: vs. BUF
If Buffalo repeats its early season success from 2011, then this game will be interesting. If the Bills bring it hard, then the 49ers' defense will have their hands full with Steve Johnson and Fred Jackson. If they don't, then Frank Gore and Vernon Davis will run all over them.
Week 6: vs. NYG
Another exciting rematch! The Niners were a hair away from playing in the Super Bowl, but the Giants came out on top of a long, hard struggle in the NFC Conference Championship. In an interesting twist of fate, we'll get to watch Mario Manningham help his new team defeat his former team.
Week 7: vs. SEA
It's no secret that Pete Carroll isn't fond of Jim Harbaugh, and he'll get a chance to show him with some new guns on his team in this Thursday night game. If Matt Flynn is throwing the ball, then the Niners could be presented with a challenge. Containing Marshawn Lynch is a full-time job by itself, so adding in Sydney Rice, Golden Tate, and whoever else Flynn flings the ball to could be enough to make Harbaugh sweat.
Week 8: @ ARI
The Cardinals surprised the 49ers the last time they played, so don't expect Harbaugh and his players to go easy on them. It could certainly be a close game, especially if John Skelton is under center, but I can't see Arizona walking away with a win, especially after San Francisco gets ten days to rest.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs. STL
This should be an interesting game. The Rams have made some significant changes in the offseason, and will be eager to show their rivals how much better they are this season. I can't pull the trigger on them winning yet, but I would be shocked if they don't make it a close game.
Week 11: vs. CHI
Assuming Jay Cutler and Matt Forte are at 100% for this Monday night game, it will be good. The Bears had a promising season yanked out from under them last season, so they'll be looking to steam-roll over as many teams as possible. The 49ers will have to play their best ball, both offensively and defensively.
Week 12: @ NOS
This could be an ugly game for the 49ers. The Saints are the bad guys of 2012 and will embrace a "us against the world" mentality much like the 2007 Patriots did. That, added with the sweet revenge New Orleans will be looking to dish out to San Francisco for the last second loss they suffered in the Divisional game will make the defense play like they're getting paid overtime.
Week 13: @ STL
Two weeks later, the Niners meet their rivals again on foreign turf. Depending on how the first game goes, this game could be more of a challenge. Maybe - just maybe - the Rams will pull off an upset. Probably not, though.
Week 14: vs. MIA
How Miami does in 2012 is still up in the air, so this is a tough game to call. If the Dolphins play as tough as they did in the last half of last season, then the 49ers will have to play hard to win this one. If they slack off, Miami could walk away with the W.
Week 15: @ NE
This prime time game is the hardest to call. The Patriots are always a force to be reckoned with, even if their defense isn't scary. Whether or not the 49ers win depends largely on their defense. The more time they keep Brady and the Patriots' offense off the field, the more Smith and Gore can chip away yardage. Oh, and Randy Moss is playing against his old team, which is mildly interesting.
Week 16: @ SEA
Round two of Harbaugh vs. Carroll is at CenturyLink Field, and it could be uglier than round one. The 49ers will likely be the Seahawks' main competition in the NFC West If the Seahawks lose in Week 7, they have to win here. If they win in Week 7, the pressure will be on to sweep them (and win their division).
Week 17: vs. ARI
I can't see this game being much different from Week 8. It's certainly possible the Cardinals could stage an upset - something they are capable of doing - but that's not something I can predict. So, I'll go with my gut and say San Francisco sweeps Arizona.
Final thoughts: By now, I've learned not to flat out predict which games a team will win and lose. On any given Sunday, anything can happen. The assertion that the 49ers had a weak schedule last season cannot be applied to them this next season. Every game presents a significant challenge in one fashion or another, and the 49ers will have to play even harder to get as far as they did last season - let alone further.
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