Jim Harbaugh’s inaugural season as a head coach in the NFL will feature several prominent firsts.
Besides his debut as the 18th coach in 49ers history, Jim and his brother John will become the first brothers in league history to serve as head coaches in the same season as well as in the same game – the 49ers will face every team in the AFC North in 2011, including John’s perennial playoff-contenting team in Baltimore.
Dates and times have not been set in stone, but the same can’t be said for the 49ers 2011 opponents, which were determined at the conclusion of the season by way of the NFL’s rotating schedule.
In addition to facing their NFC West divisional opponents and the AFC North, the 49ers will play every team in the NFC East and the two teams finishing in the same position as them (third place) in the NFC North (Lions) and NFC South (Buccaneers).
Here’s a look at what the 49ers 2011 opponents have recently accomplished:
NFC West (Home and Away)
Seattle Seahawks (7-9, first place)
Pete Carroll has one year of coaching the Seahawks under his belt and one division title. Add in a playoff upset win over the defending Super Bowl champs, and Seattle has far exceeded everyone’s expectations. The Seahawks didn’t have any Pro Bowlers, but feature several young promising players like tackle Russell Okung and safety Earl Thomas, who should become established starters in their second NFL seasons. Add in the familiarity of Harbaugh and Carroll previously competing in the Pac-10, and matchups between the two sides should heat up in 2011.
St. Louis Rams (1-15, fourth place)
From 1-15 in 2009 to one game away from the playoffs, the St. Louis Rams took major strides in 2010. In the end though, the Rams fell short of going from worst to first in the NFC West. A Week 17 loss in Seattle would have given them a playoff bid, but the inexperience of St. Louis’ offense hurt their chances in the end. The Rams will be back however, with Sam Bradford entering a second season under center and Pro Bowl running back Steven Jackson set to return. It’s more than likely that the offense will be improved with more firepower added from the draft and free agency. St. Louis improved tremendously on defense as well in 2010. Steve Spagnuolo’s defense showed its true identity, becoming a version of the blitz-happy defenses he coached in Philadelphia and New York.
Arizona Cardinals (6-10, fourth place)
A year after winning the division for a second consecutive season, the Cardinals posted the inverse of their 2009 record, going 6-10 in a disappointing 2010 campaign. Questions remain at the quarterback position, but Arizona features several prominent players like Pro Bowl safety Adrian Wilson and wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who caught 90 passes and surpassed the 1,000-yard mark for a fourth consecutive year. Arizona relieved defensive coordinator Bill Davis of his duties and is in search of a leader for a unit that finished 30th in points allowed and 29th in yards allowed. But the Cardinals will be able to add an impact player in the draft. They have the highest pick of all teams in the division with the fifth overall selection.
Home Opponents (NFC East / AFC North / NFC South third place)
New York Giants (10-6, second place NFC East)
Three years after a World Championship, the Giants still have the expectations to be a Super Bowl-contenting team. And when the team failed to make the playoffs this season with a 10-6 record, locally, it was not viewed as a success. Although they were tied for the best record in their division, the Giants finished second due to tiebreakers and out of the playoffs altogether. However, New York should be in position to make a run at the division title next season. The team has four Pro Bowlers in center Shaun O’Hara, guard Chris Snee, defensive end Justin Tuck and safety Antrel Rolle. Also, quarterback Eli Manning remains as one of the league’s top quarterbacks throwing to a slew of weapons in the passing game. But despite their talent, you can rest assure that a quiet offseason and the Giants won’t be in the same sentence. The big market team will surely exhaust every option in making necessary moves to get back atop the division.
Dallas Cowboys (6-10, third place NFC East)
The Cowboys had five Pro Bowlers and six wins in 2010. Center Andre Gurode, punter Matt McBriar, defensive tackle Jay Ratliff, outside linebacker DeMarcus Ware and tight end Jason Witten all earned tickets to Hawaii, but as a whole, the Cowboys could not muster enough team success. Head coach Wade Phillips was fired mid-season, forcing the Cowboys to salvage the year with a strong finish under interim coach Jason Garrett, which led owner Jerry Jones to remove the interim tag. Going forward, injured quarterback Tony Romo will be healthy after a fractured collar bone caused him to miss 10 games. Romo has a favorite target in Witten and will look to continue developing chemistry with up-and-coming wideouts Dez Bryant and Miles Austin.
Pittsburgh Steelers (12-4, first place AFC North)
The Steelers continue to be a dominant force in the AFC and will present a difficult home matchup for the 49ers. It’ll be Pittsburgh’s first appearance at Candlestick Park since 2003, when the 49ers were victorious by a count of 30-14. The Steelers have three Pro Bowlers on the current roster including outside linebacker James Harrison, safety Troy Polamalu and rookie center Maurkice Pouncey. Two-time Super Bowl winning quarterback Ben Roethlisberger leads a potent offensive attack, which was highlighted in 2010 by the emergence of second-year wide receiver Mike Wallace. Pittsburgh also continues to showcase a dominant 3-4 defense that led the NFL with 48 sacks and finished second with 276.8 yards per game.
Cleveland Browns (5-11, third place AFC North)
The Browns in 2011 will look much different starting at the top. A replacement for head coach Eric Mangini has yet to be named, but it’s likely the new coach will bring in new players to compliment the stars on the Browns current roster. Tackle Joe Thomas stands out as the team’s lone Pro Bowler in 2010, but running back Peyton Hillis enjoyed a breakout year. He rushed for 1,177 yards with 11 touchdowns and five, 100-yard performances. Cleveland also has a building block on defense in rookie cornerback Joe Haden, who is a finalist for Pepsi’s Rookie of the Year Award. The No. 7 overall selection picked off six passes and finished with 64 tackles. The Browns will look to add another cornerstone when they select with the sixth overall pick in April.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (10-6, third place NFC South)
The 49ers will host the Buccaneers for a second consecutive season and will want revenge from a 21-0 loss. Like New York, Tampa Bay put together a double-digit win season and still found themselves out of the playoffs. The Buccaneers have plenty to look forward to nonetheless. Quarterback Josh Freeman has taken command of the offense in his second NFL season and has strong chemistry with rookie wideouts Mike Williams and Arrelious Benn. Undrafted rookie LeGarrette Blount rushed for 1,007 yards with six touchdowns in establishing himself as a force to be reckoned with for years to come on a Buccaneers team that surprisingly had no Pro Bowlers on it. That’ll likely change in 2011, as the young team continues to grow into contenders for the NFC South crown.
Away Opponents (NFC East / AFC North / NFC North third place)
Philadelphia Eagles (10-6, first place NFC East)
It’ll be four years in a row that the 49ers and Eagles meet in the regular season. The 49ers have lost five straight to the Eagles and will be in search for their first win in the series since 2003. Philadelphia was upset in the Wild Card round of the playoffs and will need to decide on a long term starter at the quarterback position. Mike Vick is a free agent and backup Kevin Kolb has made it public that he doesn’t want to return as the No. 2 signal caller. Either way, Philadelphia is in good shape at the offensive skill positions. The Eagles have five Pro Bowlers including Vick, wide receiver DeSean Jackson, tackle Jason Peters, cornerback Asante Samuels and kicker
Washington Redskins (6-10, fourth place NFC East)
The Redskins have decisions to make with two of their marquee players. After suspending defensive tackle Albert Haynseworth for the final four games of the season and benching veteran quarterback Donovan McNabb, it remains to be seen if either will return in 2011. The Redskins select 10th in the upcoming draft despite finishing with the same record as the 49ers by way of having a greater strength of schedule. The Redskins have a sole Pro Bowl representative in cornerback DeAngelo Williams, which bodes well for the future of the defense. In switching to a 3-4 this past season, the Redskins are hopeful that the experience will serve them well in 2011.
Baltimore Ravens (12-4, second place AFC North)
Besides the previously mentioned matchup of brothers, the Ravens and 49ers will meet for the first time since 2007. Baltimore features five Pro Bowlers on the current roster, including linebacker Ray Lewis, safety Ed Reed, defensive tackle Haloti Ngata, linebacker Terrell Suggs and kicker Billy Cundiff. All but Suggs and Cundiff will start for the AFC squad. Baltimore’s defense led the NFL allowing a mere 161.0 yards per game which was 148 yards better than second place. It’s familiar territory for one of the league’s most dominant defenses of the past decade. But for the offense, finishing as the league’s third-most productive unit (390.0 yards per game) is a positive development. Third-year quarterback Joe Flacco continues to grow in the offense and posted career highs in yards (3,622), touchdowns (25) and a career-low in interceptions (10). Flacco now has former Arizona Cardinal wideout Anquan Boldin at his disposal too.
Cincinnati Bengals (4-12, fourth place AFC North)
The Bengals avoided major turnover by resigning head coach Marvin Lewis to a contract extension following the 2010 season. Lewis has led the franchise on its only two playoff appearances in the past two decades. However, the Bengals went from first to last place in 2010, and lost nine straight games in the middle of the season. Cincinnati’s biggest highlight was an upset win over the San Diego Chargers. Not only did it eliminate San Diego from postseason contention, but was great experience for emerging players like wide receiver Jerome Simpson, who caught two touchdown passes in the win. The Bengals have several building blocks on defense and should find another difference maker for either side of the ball when they select No. 4 in the upcoming draft.
Detroit Lions (6-10, third place NFC North)
The Lions won six games in 2010, the most since they won seven games in 2007. Detroit has several building blocks in place for an even better record next season. Wide receiver Calvin Johnson and defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh will start for the NFC Pro Bowl team. Second-year quarterback Matt Stafford battled injuries throughout the season and only appeared in three games, but a return to the lineup will see the Lions put together their grouping of young offensive play-makers. The group includes rookie running back Jahvid Best, Johnson and second-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew. Defensively, the Lions added to the unit in free agency with the signing of several defensive linemen. The team will look to bolster depth with the No. 13 overall selection in the draft.
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