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49ers suddenly among most underrated?

Chris Sprow's weekly Insider piece dissecting our NFL power rankings shined light on the San Francisco 49ers heading into Week 1.

The 49ers have failed to meet expectations in recent seasons, but Sprow ranks them among the most undervalued teams in our rankings. He thinks they should have been ranked around 17th instead of 26th based on numerous factors, including computer simulations and analysis gamblers rely upon:

By most any measure, the Niners were better than a 6-10 team last year. Not vastly better, but better. And it's not fluky. For instance, the Niners had the 13th-best total defense last season. But that also lines up with more advanced stats, such as Football Outsiders defensive DVOA, which had the Niners again ranked 13th. Eliminate luck factors and the team was over a full win better than that 6-10 mark. Both the computers and the sharps consider San Francisco the best team in the NFC West to start the season, believing that if Jim Harbaugh can coax anything out of Alex Smith -- and give Harbaugh credit, he's been steadfast that he can -- this could be a surprise team. San Francisco's offensive line should be improved as well. The committee is far too bearish on the Niners.

There's no question the 49ers' decision to stick with Smith has lowered expectations for the team. There's also every reason to expect any quarterback, including Smith, to fare better under Harbaugh than under former coach Mike Singletary. Whether Smith is a bust in relation to his draft status can be an emotional issue for long-suffering fans, but it isn't relevant to a narrow discussion on whether he should improve from 2010.

Sprow's reference to 2010 defensive stats isn't as helpful from my standpoint. The 49ers have new defensive coaches, a new defensive scheme and as many as six new starters on that side of the ball. Whether Harbaugh's attention to detail helps the 49ers win close games stands out as more important in my view. The 49ers lost four games by three or fewer points during their 1-6 start last season. They were 1-4 overall in games decided by three or fewer points. If better coaching gets them to 3-2 in those types of games, with all else equal, it's reasonable to expect improvement in the standings.

I projected only six to seven wins for the 49ers this season largely because I don't trust Smith to stay healthy. But if he makes it through 16 games for the second time in his career, the 49ers should improve upon their 6-10 record from last season.