By TPR Staff

All season, I have gone back and forth on the Niners. One week, they’ll look unstoppable and I think their run to New Orleans looks inevitable. The next week, they’ll lose to the Rams. One week, they’ll do the unthinkable and knock off New England in Foxboro in December. Only to follow that up with an embarrassing national television loss to Seattle.

When Jim Harbaugh took the reins at the beginning of last year, I said that I thought they could be one of the surprise playoff teams in the NFC. However, even that guess didn’t prepare me for what they did in making it within one fumble of a Super Bowl run. But if the goal each season is to make it at least one step further than you did the year before, then anything short of a berth as the NFC champion should be a disappointment for this club.

Regardless of what happens, they’ll have to go on the road at some point to get there. With Atlanta and maybe Green Bay (win over Minnesota Sunday) locking up the two first round bye’s in the NFC, the best the Niners can do is secure the number three seed, which secures them at least one home game. With weakness in match ups with fast, young teams like St. Louis and Seattle, this could end up problematic if they draw an opponent they weren’t prepared for.

It’s quite difficult to call and Jim Harbaugh team unprepared, but I’m in the camp of folks who believe that he is playing with fire in benching Alex Smith this late in the season. Yes, Kaepernick has played great, but he’s still green. Going into the playoffs in “win now” mode with a guy who is basically a rookie might come back to bite San Francisco. I do believe that Kaepernick playing this well isn’t a surprise, as he was always Harbaugh’s guy since he drafted him.

I’m not the biggest believer of Alex Smith and I’ve gone on the record several times in my statement that I don’t think he’s a Super Bowl quarterback. But with this defense and running game, he doesn’t have to be. A smart veteran like Smith is a guy I’d feel more confident with this season, then make the transition to Kaepernick next year, but what’s done is done.

In short, the only thing I can see holding the Niners back from making a Super Bowl run this year is turnovers. When you’ve got a young guy in a pressure situation, they start pressing and feeling the need to make a play. This is when dumb mistakes get made and a young quarterback in a big game can really hurt his team. Then Harbaugh gets faced with the nightmare scenario of “what if” in regards to his Alex Smith benching; especially when he lost his spot due to injury and not poor play.

However, I think the Niners defense is brutal enough to carry the team most of the way. If they don’t turn the ball over, their defense will likely hold most opponents under 24 points. At least that’s what they’ll need to do to stop Rodgers and the Packers. He’s going to get his, but you have to contain him, because a team like San Francisco plays well with a lead, but struggles trying to play catch up, just like most running teams out there.

Is it a disappointment if San Fran loses in the NFC title game? Probably. Like I said, the goal each year is to get at least one step further than the year before. But it’s difficult to get angry at a team that was atrocious just two seasons ago for not getting to the big game. What Harbaugh has done has set this franchise up for years of potential success. They’re very young and having a full offseason with Kaepernick as the guy; the sky is the limit. If they get the right match up, this team could very easily find itself playing for the Lombardi Trophy in just under six weeks.

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