Head coach Mike Singletary had his team moving in the right direction, and the 49ers have emerged as NFC West favorites. They won three of their last four games in 2009, and Singletary could have his boys in the playoffs for the first time since 2002. Let's take a look at the 49ers as NESN.com's third stop on a 32-day lap around the league.
2009 Record: 8-8 (missed playoffs)
2010 Schedule Difficulty: Their opponents went a combined 117-139 (.457 winning percentage) in 2009, which makes for the fifth-easiest schedule in the NFL.
Key Additions: Wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr., tackle Anthony Davis (draft), guard Mike Iupati (draft), safety Taylor Mays (draft), quarterback David Carr, running back Anthony Dixon (draft)
Key Losses: Quarterback Shaun Hill
Burning Question: Can Alex Smith build off of last season's high-flying finish? The quarterback and top overall selection in the 2005 draft had been considered a bust before he took over for Shaun Hill midway through last season. Smith played in 11 games, and he passed for 2,350 yards, 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He really thrived when the Niners transitioned to a spread offense, and Smith found a good connection with big-play receiver Michael Crabtree. Smith enters the final year of his contract, and expectations will slightly rival what he faced as a rookie. With a comfort level in the spread offense — which he thrived in at Utah — let's bet Smith's revival is in full swing.
2010 Outlook: The 49ers are 13-12 since Singletary took over midway through 2008. They play hard, they like his style and the players really liked how he responded to their requests to implement more of the spread. San Francisco is coming off of an impressive draft, with an admirable decision to fix an offensive line that surrendered 40 sacks last season.
Anyway, the Niners have shown some improvements, and they've got enough in place to win the division in 2010. Their division hopes, however, seem to be more about the regression of Arizona than anything, so that?s not the greatest endorsement. Either way, after seven consecutive seasons without a playoff trip, this proud franchise could use a break.