At the halfway point of the 2012 season, the NFC playoff picture seems pretty clear. For the teams that will be the true SB contenders this year. There will be a scrubeenie entrant, that takes its fans down to the last game of the year before squeezing in as a wildcard, but there are only three dead solid sure bets at the moment: the Giants, Falcons, and 49ers.
The Packers and Bears could muscle their way into the contenders’ room, but that would be it. One of them will win the NFC North and the other will be a wildcard. That leaves only one spot left in the tournament. Good luck Seattle, Minnesota, or some back from the dead team in the NFC East or South.
Unless the Packers start looking as invincible as they did last year, however, the Big Three are the only teams with a shot at the big dance.
In the AFC, there are only two teams that are true contenders: Houston and New England. Denver will waltz in with the third seed, but Peyton Manning can’t beat Tom Brady or the Texans’ defense. Especially in the playoffs where Manning is a pedestrian 9-10. Forget it. Baltimore and Pittsburg will no doubt grab a fourth seed and a wildcard, leaving one other berth up for grabs on the last game or two of the year. I have no idea which piss poor team is going to grab that spot. Miami, the Colts, Oakland? Who cares?
Everybody else is out of the picture. Twenty or so teams are just playing out the schedule now. Their blogs will turn to next year’s draft, coaching changes, the future, the players who stink — the kind of blogs that were a 49er staple until Jim Harbaugh came to town. The good old days. Screw ’em.
49er offensive and defensive stats over the first half were improved from last year. Better third down success, more yards per play, better running, less pass yardage allowed, and better red zone production. The big difference is, as expected, the turnover differential, interceptions, and fumble recoveries — all down from 2011. The special teams have not been as special, giving us less of a field position advantage and causing longer drives to score points — which the team has succeeded in doing.
All of which means we have a better team that is less reliant on luck and the vagaries and whimsies of the football gods and their cleverly shaped 11 inch prolate spheroid puck. We also have almost an entire draft class red-shirted on the bench, making next year essentially a double impact draft. Such riches!
On defense, Dashon Goldson has matured into an elite like FS who will get a fat contract from some team this coming offseason, hopefully from the 49ers. Chris Culliver has also looked terrific as the nickel CB and eventual starter — either at CB or perhaps at FS, should Goldson leave in free agency.
Alex Boone deserves special mention on offense. He’s taken over at RG and been a major upgrade over Chilo Rachal and Adam Snyder. This line is already a dominant run blocking unit and is improving in pass protection. The only starter over 30 is center Jonathan Goodwin (34 next month), so the line looks set for elite status well into the future.
All in all, a very pleasing first half to the season. The team has not regressed, as many predicted, and is actually an improved team in nearly all areas. We’ve seen the jinx of Green Bay overcome at long last, some truly blow out superior victories, and only two dispiriting losses.
For many, the questions surrounding our starting QB Alex Smith can only be answered in the very last game of the season. If that game is a loss, many will want to see Colin Kaepernick compete legitimately for the job next summer. If the last game is a win — well, that would be a sweet (or terrifying, perhaps) pickle to chew on now, wouldn’t it?