In each of the past three seasons with Jim Harbaugh at the helm, the San Francisco 49ers have won at least 11 games and reached the NFC Championship Game. Those goals seem attainable again in 2014 for the 49ers, but injuries and suspensions have produced many questions that will need answered.
Severe injuries to NaVorro Bowman and Glenn Dorsey, along with the nine-game suspension for Aldon Smith, have hampered the 49ers defense, and the latest domestic violence allegations against Ray McDonald could potentially decimate the unit even further. Several standouts still remain, though, including All-Pro selections Patrick Willis and Justin Smith, as well as Ahmad Brooks and Eric Reid.
The offense appears to be a much-improved unit from last season, though, as San Francisco extended the contract of quarterback Colin Kaepernick and provided him with several new weapons in the process. Receivers Stevie Johnson and Brandon Lloyd will add solid depth in the passing game, while second-round draft pick Carlos Hyde could make an immediate impact in relief of veteran Frank Gore. Additionally, with the news of an impending return of guard Alex Boone, the offensive line appears solidified.
Much like in 2013, the first five games of this season will test the resolve of the 49ers. San Francisco will open the campaign against five teams that either qualified for the postseason or were in contention until the final week last season.
San Francisco travels to play the Dallas Cowboys in the season opener and then return home to host three of the next four contests. The 49ers welcome the Chicago Bears to the first regular season game played at Levi’s Stadium and then travel to face the Arizona Cardinals before hosting the Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs. San Francisco can potentially finish this five-game span with a mark of 4-1, although the tilts against Dallas, Arizona and Kansas City will be formidable challenges.
The 49ers then play the St. Louis Rams in two out of the next three games, with a trip to play the defending AFC Champion Denver Broncos sandwiched in between. The visit to the Mile High city will be one of the toughest tests of the season for San Francisco and also one of the marquee non-conference games in the entire league. Additionally, the 49ers receive their bye during this span and should be expected to go 2-1, beating the Rams twice and losing to the Broncos.
San Francisco then plays three non-division NFC foes, as the 49ers travel to face the New Orleans Saints and New York Giants before hosting the Washington Redskins. While San Francisco will be favored in the contests against the Giants and Redskins, winning on the road against the Saints is one of the most daunting challenges in the league, so again, the 49ers will likely go 2-1 in this span.
The final five-game stretch of the season is highlighted by two matchups against the 49ers’ biggest rival, the reigning Super Bowl Champion Seattle Seahawks. In recent history between these NFC West rivals, the team with the home-field advantage has prevailed. To that point, San Francisco hosts the Seahawks for a Thursday night tilt in Week 13 and then travels to Seattle just more than two weeks later. In between these two marquee matchups is local trip to play the nearby Oakland Raiders. The 49ers conclude their schedule with home games against the San Diego Chargers and the Cardinals. If San Francisco can split the pair of games with Seattle, the 49ers should be able to win two of the other three games during his final stretch and go 3-2.
2014 Prediction: 11-5