The San Francisco 49ers return all their starters from one of the NFL's best defenses.
Others play great defense, too.
"Thanks, Sando. You're a freaking genius," @in4td wrote.
A sarcastic comment, obviously, and one with some merit. It should be clear that any team finishing 13-3 will be more likely to finish with a worse record the following year. I wanted to provide context to help set expectations. I also realized the headline -- "Bank on it: 49ers heading south in 2012" -- was more provocative than most and would generate some reaction.
Another response, one suggesting the 49ers would face a tougher strength of schedule, was the genesis for the remainder of this entry.
First, the usual disclaimers about schedule strength. How a team finished one season doesn't always indicate how it will fare the next, so there are limitations.
The chart, from ESPN Stats & Information, shows where teams rank in 2012 schedule strength based on 2011 records. The 49ers' success last season partly explains why Arizona, Seattle and St. Louis rank among the top 11 in strength of schedule using 2011 records. The 49ers rank tied for 24th; they obviously cannot play themselves.
The scheduling rotation pits the NFC West against teams from the NFC North and AFC East this season, a change from the NFC East and AFC North last season. The rotation means NFC West teams will face the 15-1 Green Bay Packers and 13-3 New England Patriots. Those teams might not go a combined 28-4 again, but they have been consistently formidable.
Chicago could improve upon its 8-8 mark with Jay Cutler healthy. Minnesota finished 3-13, an unusually poor record that could improve. AFC East teams Miami and Buffalo went 6-10 and could reasonably finish within a couple games of that, either way. And if Jeff Fisher can help the Rams improve markedly from 2-14, schedule strengths for their NFC West rivals and other opponents would toughen up accordingly.
2012 NFL Strength of Schedule By Team
A look at the most difficult schedules in 2012 (based on opponents' 2011 record).