Much to the surprise of EVERYONE except first year head coach Jim Harbaugh, the 2011 San Francisco 49ers were a Kyle Williams muffed punt away from representing the NFC in the Super Bowl.

The expectations for 2012 are as high as they have been since the days of Young and Rice.  The 49ers have all eleven starters from last season back on defense.  They upgraded the offense with the additions of Randy Moss, Mario Manningham, and Brandon Jacobs.

Despite a strong performance in the 2011 playoffs, the jury is still largely out on eighth year quarterback Alex Smith.  Smith has gone from a bust to serviceable, back to a bust, and now he's a guy trying to lead a talented young team to a Super Bowl.

Eric Branch covers the 49ers for the San Francisco Chronicle.  Branch likes the upgrades on offense and is pleased the 49ers were able to keep all their defensive starters.