- Mike Sando, NFL Insider
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Final Power Ranking: 3
Preseason Power Ranking: 26
Biggest surprise: Alex Smith threw only five interceptions while finishing the season with a 90.7 NFL passer rating, ninth-best in the league. In 2010, he threw twice as many picks in five fewer games. Smith also held up better physically than he had in past seasons. He made 16 starts without suffering much more than a mild concussion that forced him to miss no meaningful time. Smith, a participant in zero fourth-quarter comeback victories from 2008- 10, put his signature on five of them this season. That was tied for most in the league. Coach Jim Harbaugh pushed Smith for the Pro Bowl.
Biggest disappointment: Injuries to Josh Morgan, Ted Ginn Jr., Kyle Williams, Delanie Walker and the since-released Braylon Edwards have left the 49ers thin on pass catchers heading into the playoffs. The team will need more from Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree to compensate for what Morgan, Walker and Edwards would have provided at their best. Getting back Ginn and Williams also should help. Davis reemerged as a primary threat in recent weeks. He had 18 catches for 244 yards over the 49ers' final three regular-season games. That is the most productive three-game stretch of the season for Davis. Crabtree is also producing at a higher level lately. Still, this group could have been stronger.
Biggest need: Additional help in the secondary could make sense. The 49ers, despite ranking among the league leaders in most defensive categories, allowed 12 pass plays of at least 40 yards, tied for fifth-most in the league. Long pass plays were a factor in defeats to Dallas and Arizona. The 49ers will have to decide how much to pay cornerback Carlos Rogers and free safety Dashon Goldson. Both earned Pro Bowl honors. Neither has a contract for next season. It's unclear how aggressive the 49ers might be in retaining them. Chris Culliver, a third-round choice in 2011, had an interception and seven passes defensed as a rookie. He factors into the equation at corner.
Team MVP: Defensive end Justin Smith gets the call over inside linebacker Patrick Willis because Smith started every game and dominated. Smith can occupy two blockers and still get free to make a tackle. He's a threat to sack the quarterback. His presence was also a leading factor in setting up teammates. Rookie Aldon Smith had 14 sacks in part because Smith forced favorable matchups. A knee injury slowed Justin Smith during the final two games, but he fought through it and even sneaked back onto the field when the Rams were rallying in Week 17.
Special season: No team in the league could top the 49ers on special teams. San Francisco led the league in field position. Ginn averaged 27.6 yards per kickoff return and 12.3 yards per punt return, scoring two touchdowns in the opener. Kicker David Akers set a league record for made field goals. After the 49ers downed Andy Lee's 64-yard punt at the St. Louis 1-yard line in the fourth quarter Sunday, Lee emerged with the highest single-season net average (44.0) since at least 1976, according to Mark Simon of ESPN Stats & Information.