The 49ers begin what looks like a rocky road to get back to the Super Bowl with a very tough opponent, the Green Bay Packers, at Candlestick Park on Sunday.
Very few teams repeat Super Bowl appearances, whether they win or lose, and there's a reason for that: Every team studies videos of those teams to figure both how to stop them and what they can borrow to improve.
The first reason is especially relevant for the Packers, whose defensive coordinator, Dom Capers, didn't have a clue how to stop Colin Kaepernick when these teams met in the playoffs in January. When Kaepernick rolled right, there were no Packers defenders there.
Capers will have a better idea of how to defend against Kaepernick this time around. So will the rest of the league, especially after this opening game. That doesn't mean either the Packers or other teams on their schedule will stop Kaepernick or the various formations and plays by offensive coordinator Greg Roman, but they will have a much better idea of how to do it.
That's not the only problem for the Niners in their opener. Their defensive backfield has been changed because of losses to free agency and injuries, and now, they have to face Aaron Rodgers, who is considered the best quarterback in the NFL. Not that he needs it, but Rodgers will have the added incentive of returning to the area where he played college football, at Cal.
Rules changes in the last three decades have all favored the offense and turned the NFL into an all-out passing league. Seasonal records have been set and 400-yard passing games have become common. The 49ers' secondary last season gave up many yards but compensated by ballhawking, either through interceptions or forced fumbles which they recovered. Will the revamped secondary be able to do the same? We'll soon find out.
Meanwhile, Kaepernick has a shortage of reliable targets with Michael Crabtree possibly out for the season and Mario Manningham out for at least the first six games. There has been a revolving door of receivers going in and out of training camp, but the receiving corps is still Vernon Davis, Anquan Boldin and several question marks.
The NFC West has also toughened up considerably, Pete Carroll, aka Jim Harbaugh's best friend, has the Seattle Seahawks primed to take the division from the Niners. The Arizona Cardinals have a reliable quarterback in Carson Palmer, which they lacked last year. The St. Louis Rams, who played the 49ers tough last year but laid down against everybody else, seem much improved.
The 49ers still have plenty of weapons, with Kaepernick and Frank Gore, the 49ers' all-time rushing leader, heading up the offense. The run defense is very strong and, as long as Justin Smith is healthy, the 49ers stop the run and rush the passer very well.
And in a league where the assistants do the real coaching, they have two great ones in Roman on offense and Vic Fangio on defense.
Will this be enough to win the NFC West and get back to the Super Bowl? We'll know more after Sunday's game.
Until then, wait on that trip to Reno to bet on them.