Alex Smith and the San Francisco 49ers are my Super Bowl pick from the NFC, thanks to one of the league's best defenses, an upgraded group of receivers and the further development of Smith under coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
They did wonders with Andrew Luck at Stanford. Even acknowledging that he's Andrew Luck and this is Alex Smith, there's reason to believe Smith's 2012 performance was just the start for him in this system.
"He's getting through his reads quicker … and really just taking ownership of our offense," Roman said on the team's website. "He understands all the things that we do and he's really, really, really intelligent."
Roman described Smith as "savant-like" in his processing of information, even exceeding the labels used for him during his University of Utah days.
If there's a tendency to dismiss the 49ers' rise as a one-year phenomenon, I'm countering with the belief that they outplayed the eventual Super Bowl winners in the NFC championship game and lost to the New York Giants only because of two punt-return fumbles. The 49ers have addressed the biggest weakness that surfaced in that game, when Smith completed only one pass to a wide receiver for 3 yards.
Smith still loves tight end Vernon Davis, for good reason. Yet with the additions of former Giants receiver Mario Manningham and rookie A.J. Jenkins, plus whatever threat Randy Moss can provide at this stage, Smith now has some field-stretching weapons.
Reviewing his seven-year pro career, I recognize that this favorable forecast is dangerous. Smith's best work usually comes after he appears hopeless, and the reverse also is true. But I'm looking for him to keep growing in his second year with Harbaugh, just as he did with Urban Meyer at Utah.
He'll remain carefully efficient or "understated and reliable," to use Esquire's sartorial analysis after throwing only five interceptions (and 17 touchdowns) last season. As he said, "There's no sense to just drop back and throw it up." But San Francisco certainly should score more points in 2012, complementing the league's No. 4 defense of last season.
That defense remains the biggest reason I like San Francisco over Green Bay in the NFC even though the Packers may beat the 49ers in Sunday's opener. New Orleans is intriguing to me, just because Drew Brees and his offense are so productive, but the Saints have too many distractions. The Giants are still the 9-7 team that just got hot in January.
All those factors elevate the 49ers, who went from 6-10 to 13-3 in Harbaugh's first season. They'll have trouble duplicating that record with a tougher schedule, but should finish 12-4 and earn a top-two playoff seed.
The 49ers had some issues with pass protection and secondary coverage in the preseason, and Manningham has yet to establish himself in the offense. But with Frank Gore now supported by ex-Giants running back Brandon Jacobs and rookie LaMichael James, San Francisco's ground game appears even stronger.
So the 49ers have done what any good organization would do: They maintained the core of their defense and improved their offense. The result is that Alex Smith will look even better this season on the field, not just off the field.