SANTA CLARA -- Who had it better than the 49ers last season? Well, nobody, now that you ask.
To the 49ers' great credit, nobody played the turnover game better, nobody kept their key players healthier, and nobody took fuller and wiser advantage of every 2011 angle.
Up until the last minutes of the NFC title game last January, of course, nobody did it or lived it better than Jim Harbaugh's roaring 49ers.
But their 2012 season starts Sunday in Green Bay, and maybe things will be slightly different, right from Week 1.
The 49ers are undoubtedly talented -- deeper, more experienced and more versatile than they were during their 13-3 journey last season.
So Alex Smith and the 49ers offense could rise up and play perfectly at Lambeau Field on Sunday, the 49ers defense could dominate Aaron Rodgers and Co., and all the good vibrations could go on and on.
But there is a quiet understanding among some in the 49ers headquarters that everything that went right in 2011 may not quite all go so smoothly in 2012.
Possibly starting Sunday. And that's OK, that's part of accepting NFL reality and bracing for the moment when many others could have it better than them.
The 49ers' whole new challenge is setting it up so that they can succeed, either way -- in good or rough times.
First, there are the new challenges and pressures as a team expected to win often and win big.
"I don't think it changes us at all,"
"And we know that. We have to go out there every day in practice to get ready every week. That's the mindset: One game at a time and get better than we were last year."
That's assuredly the correct way to handle this, but there are also twists of fortune to any season.
Already, the 49ers have lost veteran linebacker Parys Haralson (a starter last season, scheduled to be the main backup in 2012) for the season.
Last year, only one key player, receiver Josh Morgan, was sidelined by injury for a sustained length of time.
And the 49ers defense forced 38 turnovers last year, tied with (coincidentally) Green Bay for the most in the league; meanwhile, the 49ers offense gave it away only 10 times, a stunningly low figure.
Though history tells us teams rarely are able to produce that many takeaways from year to year, the 49ers are confident they can keep ripping and tipping the ball away from opponents.
"When you have a pass rush like ours, guys who can get to the quarterback ... when you have guys that are playing physical each and every snap, you're going to get impact fumbles," safety Donte Whitner said.
"When people say 'the 49ers defense,' you're going to talk about turnovers."
The 49ers have logically made sure to keep their defense intact from last season; they've made the adjustments to the offense, adding Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and several others to give Smith more options downfield.
And offensive coordinator Greg Roman confirmed Thursday that the 49ers even could use some high-speed read-option scheme, with Smith or Colin Kaepernick handling the ball.
That's exciting ... but also could lead to more turnovers, and again, the 49ers had hardly any last season. The defense has to be as good or better, the offense has to be more explosive, the pressure is on.
In a good way.
"We relish the pressure," Whitner said. "The way you combat pressure is you go out and work hard each and every day, pay attention to the details, so when you go out on the field you can perform. That's what we do around here."
The general sense I got from the 49ers locker room: Nothing matters until they hit the field, and they're glad it finally happens on Sunday.
For instance, there's right tackle Anthony Davis' response when I asked him what it feels like to be considered a Super Bowl contender.
"Who says that?" Davis said, shaking his head. "Favorites to win? We've got to go play to prove that."
That starts Sunday, in Green Bay, when everything might go exactly as the 49ers envisioned, just like so much of 2011; but more likely, things could get dicey.
If they figure it out on the fly from there, then the 2012 season will have its own story, slogan, and possibly golden ending.