There was nothing fluky about the San Francisco 49ers' massive turnaround last year.
Well, other than their league-leading turnover differential -- plus-28!
New head coach Jim Harbaugh preached defence, ball control and ball protection. And it all worked. Magnificently.
The Niners were maybe a muffed punt return in OT away from the Super Bowl.
Teams just couldn't run on the Niners. They surrendered 53 first downs on the ground in '11, while the rest of the league averaged 98, an astounding 46% more.
Every starter returns to the 49ers defence. And although Frisco whiffed on Peyton Manning, they re-signed quarterback Alex Smith and gave him new speedy wide receivers.
Meantime, the Seahawks had one of the NFL's best defences but couldn't move the ball. Rookie QB Russell Wilson aims to rectify that.
The Cardinals have a decent defence but a dud offence, no matter who starts under centre.
The Rams, with new head coach Jeff Fisher, will struggle mightily again this year, but just wait a few years.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
LAST SEASON: 13-3, NFC final runnerup
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Frisco's D led the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game (77.3) and in rushing yards per carry (3.5). It also was fourth in total yards allowed per game (308.2), second in interceptions (23) and ninth in third-down conversions (35.2%). And, yeah, they're all back ... The new WRs: ex-Giant Mario Manningham, first-round draft pick A.J. Jenkins and, it appears, unretired former superstar Randy Moss.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Alex Smith is still the quarterback. And how much confidence does the team's leadership really have in Smith, when they wooed Manning, and only cozied back up to Smith afterward? ... The sked's a doozy. The Niners play all of the NFC North teams, plus the Saints and the Pats.
SNARKY QUESTION: Why the %&$*# can't Smith play all the time like he did down the stretch of the playoff game against the Saints?
PREDICTION: 13-3. Same stout defence, improved offence and a likely less stratospheric turnover differential add up to the same shiny record.
LAST SEASON: 7-9, no playoffs
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Russell Wilson. Looks like head coach Pete Carroll finally has a QB who can make plays, not just through the air, but occasionally with his feet. If Wilson falters, free-agent pickup Matt Flynn might suffice ... The league's ninth-ranked defence -- fourth in interceptions, with 22 -- will be even better, presuming the offence can move the ball across the street more than a few times a game.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: Wilson impressed in preseason games, sure, but he's 5-foot-11. And most of his big passes at Wisconsin last year came off play-action, thanks to the Badgers' dominant running game ... Carroll is so desperate to find functional WRs he tried out Terrell Owens, and a nearly washed-up Braylon Edwards seems likely to make the team.
SNARKY QUESTION: Why does Harbaugh have Carroll's number, going back to their days at Stanford and USC?
PREDICTION: 9-7. Wilson should be able to complement the D and Marshawn Lynch-led rushing attack to pilot Seattle to a winning record.
LAST SEASON: 8-8, no playoffs
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: Second-year CB/KR Patrick Peterson already is a playmaking superstar ... From November onward, the D allowed only 18.3 points per game, and never more than 23 ... If they can stay healthy, Beanie Wells and Ryan Williams could form one of the NFL's better RB combos ... If rookie Michael Floyd can break out, he and Larry Fitzgerald could form one of the NFL's better WR combos but ...
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: ... Kevin Kolb and John Skelton do not remotely form one of the NFL's better QB combos. Kolb, the likely starter, seldom makes quick, sound decisions in the pocket ... But if the Cards had Aaron Rodgers, they'd still sputter a lot because their OL consists of five broken-down refrigerators with arrows pointing to the pocket.
SNARKY QUESTION: How much can the Cards rightfully expect their decent defence to keep them in games?
PREDICTION: 4-12. Behind that line, neither Kolb nor Skelton appears capable of leading the Cards to victories more than a quarter of the time.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
LAST SEASON: 2-14, no playoffs
REASONS FOR OPTIMISM: There's plenty, but with an asterisk. With those first-round draft picks stockpiled courtesy of Mike Shanahan, and with Jeff Fisher now running things, good days are ahead. Just not in 2012 ... Fisher wasted no time drastically overhauling the roster, signing 11 free agents and dealing to get 10 draft picks this past April ... Young, raw talent abounds. CB Janoris Jenkins might become a star.
REASONS FOR PESSIMISM: There are so many talent holes, perhaps nowhere more than on the OL ... With so much roster turnover, and so much youth, cohesion and growing pains will hamstring this team all season. And maybe permanently hurt the growth of some.
SNARKY QUESTION: The 2010 top overall draft pick, QB Sam Bradford, has been so beaten up, can he ever regain his pocket form, comfort and confidence?
PREDICTION: 3-13. If the franchise is to relocate some year soon, Fisher might not be able to turn it into a winner until after the moving trucks unload.