Although the 49ers were 13-3 in 2011 and advanced to within one victory of the Super Bowl, some NFL observers looked at head coach Jim Harbaugh’s team as a one-year fluke.
The Niners couldn’t possibly win 13 games again, they said. San Francisco’s win total was the result of a combination of factors, including catching many opponents by surprise, good fortune with injuries and an outrageous number of takeaways.
As Bill Barnwell of ESPN’s Grantland noted in August, the 49ers improved their win total by seven over the 2010 season. Since the advent of the 16-game season in 1978, he wrote that 10 teams had improved by seven wins over their previous season, and the next season those teams won an average of 4.7 fewer games.
He wrote that such declines happen “because there are simply too many things that have to go right for a team to repeatedly put up 13-3 seasons.”
His prediction: the Niners would win nine games in 2012.
But as the 49ers prepare for the second half of their season this week, when they host the Rams at Candlestick Park this Sunday, the Niners aren’t far off their 2011 pace.
Last season at the halfway point, they were 7-1. Now, they’re 6-2.
The 49ers, who relied on a rushing attack last season, are again No. 1 in the NFL in rushing, averaging 168.6 yards per game, with Frank Gore again leading the way (with a lot of help from Kendall Hunter). Defensively, the Niners rank No. 2 in total defense, No. 2 against the pass and No. 5 against the run. And, San Francisco is No. 1 in the NFL in scoring defense, allowing just 12.9 points per game.
Though their turnover ratio has decreased significantly – they were plus-12 at this point last season and are plus-3 now, reports Matthew Barrows of the Sacramento Bee – the Niners remain solid defensively and are forcing more three-and-outs for opponents.
As cornerback Carlos Rogers told Barrows, that might be even better.
“I was asking the question the other night, ‘What’s better, to have a lot of turnovers or to get off the field on third downs?’ ” Rogers told Barrows. “I think in this league, it’s hard to consistently get a lot of turnovers. But if you can consistently get off the field on third downs, I think that’s better than anything. That kind of takes the heart out of a team.”
Offensively, the 49ers are a more balanced team at the midway point, with quarterback Alex Smith leading the league in completion percentage and throwing for more TDs (12 to 10) than he had at the midway point of 2011.
At the midpoint of this season, the Niners rank among the NFC’s elite teams. Only the 7-0 Falcons and 6-1 Bears have better records than the 49ers, who are 6-2, just like the Giants, last year’s NFC representative in the Super Bowl.
After playing the Rams this Sunday, the Niners will get a shot at the Bears on “Monday Night Football” on Nov. 19.
So far, a 12-win season isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Nor is a trip to the Super Bowl.
But with half a season left to play, the Niners are still focused on their next game.
“We all have one goal, and that’s to make the playoffs, and once we get there then make it to the Super Bowl,” defensive lineman Ray McDonald told Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
But, says defensive end Justin Smith, “We have a lot of stuff to do” before earning a playoff spot.
Beginning with preparing for the 3-5 Rams coming to San Francisco for Game No. 9 this Sunday afternoon.