Don’t downplay these 49ers. It’s safe to dream a little bigger.
Sure, simply reaching the playoffs serves as a huge step forward based on their play in recent years, but the 49ers have compiled a 2011 résumé that gives them as many — or more — reasons to reach the Super Bowl as any of their NFC counterparts.
The Green Bay Packers may feature quarterback Aaron Rodgers and the New Orleans Saints may boast quarterback Drew Brees — one of whom figures to be the NFL’s Most Valuable Player this season — but the 49ers carry with them the conference’s best defense.
The 49ers also boast an offense and special teams units that have led the league in categories that are often called key to postseason success.
On defense, the 49ers have allowed the second-fewest points in the NFL behind the Pittsburgh Steelers. They’ve also ranked No. 1 in the NFC in fewest yards allowed, as well as the fewest rushing yards allowed. They also surrendered the fewest first downs.
The 49ers’ defense proved itself as opportunistic as any in the league, producing 38 takeaways over 16 regular-season games, equaling the Packers for the most in the NFL this season.
And they did it minus the best defensive player in the game — Patrick Willis — most of the way down the stretch. Couple his return to health with the emergence of Larry Grant and rookie Aldon Smith, and the 49ers figure to be a defensive nightmare for anyone this postseason.
On special teams, the 49ers take into the playoffs kicker David Akers, who set an NFL record for most field goals in a season, and punter Andy Lee, who only led the league in average yards per punt (50.9), and net yards per punt (44.6). Can’t do much better than that.
Throw in Ted Ginn Jr. as one of only three return specialists to return a punt and a kickoff for a touchdown this season, and the Niners figure to have an edge during any change-of-possession situation that involves applying a foot to the football.
And on offense — which admittedly proved quite frustrating to watch many times this season — the 49ers turned the ball over fewer times (10) than any team in the league.
Ten turnovers in a season is almost off the statistical charts. The Packers ranked second this season with 14 giveaways, and the other 30 teams committed 19 turnovers or more. Since 2002, no NFL team other than these 49ers has committed fewer than 13.
A great defense plus exceptional special teams plus an offense that doesn’t turn over the football equals a pretty solid postseason formula for reaching a Super Bowl in any year, not just 2012.
Tim Liotta is a freelance journalist and regular contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. Email him at email@example.com.