Don't spread this around too loudly. It might provoke anguish and torment among the fan base:
The 49ers really might lose Sunday at Lambeau Field.
And that's OK.
What isn't OK is if the 49ers look inept, unprepared and lousy when they play the Green Bay Packers in their season opener. I can't see that happening. I see a close game, probably decided in the last few minutes, probably by a big play. Both teams have Pro Bowl players to make one of those plays. Either team could. One team will. One won't. And know what happens after that?
Fifteen more games.
It's only natural to examine the first 60 minutes of a football season more intensely than the last 900 minutes or more (depending on overtimes and playoff games). But it's important to know exactly what you are watching in those 60 minutes.
Basically, you are viewing one chapter of a very long novel. You are watching secrets be slowly revealed. And you should pay attention to much more than the scoreboard over the course of those first 60 minutes. So I'll give you a little help in that regard, based on people who know a lot more about it than me.
One would be 49ers safety Donte Whitner. He's one of the team's more underrated players, as well as one of the smarter guys on the roster. He'll be a coach one day, if he wishes. During Sunday's game, he will be quite busy. But when asked last week what the average fan might want to focus on Sunday
"Our pass rush," Whitner said for one answer.
"The offensive line push," Whitner said for the other answer.
Sounds so basic. But it's so true. If you notice during the first half that the 49ers offensive line is able to move Green Bay defenders backwards or sideways to create space, it will show us that the Jim Harbaugh/Greg Roman offense can dictate tempo the same way it did last season -- no matter how Sunday's game is playing out on the scoreboard.
Likewise, if you're watching the first quarter and Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers is being hurried or hit consistently by the 49ers' front four pass rushers without the aid of blitzers, this will eventually pay off for the team down the line, even if Rodgers is completing passes.
"If we can get pressure with our front four, if the pass rush is there, it makes everything else better," Whitner said.
He meant in the big picture, as well as in the small picture. Try to keep that in mind. A football game can take so many strange turns. A fluke turnover or one missed tackle at exactly the wrong moment can lead to a defeat. But over the course of 16 games, if a team is doing the right basic things, the fluke plays will even out.
Also keep this in mind: It's not unusual for even the best 49ers teams to be tripped up on the road during the season's opening weeks. In 1981, the first 49ers' Super Bowl champions lost their opener at Detroit. In 1994, the last 49ers' Super Bowl champions came out of the gate with a 1-1 record after winning the opening game but losing the next week at Kansas City.
You know what's sad? The NFL preseason is so overcooked, overcovered and overanalyzed, it often feels as if Opening Day is actually the middle of the season. We almost forget that there are a few mysteries to still be revealed and disentangled.
In the 49ers' case, the most important three mysteries are:
1. Will the defense, with everyone back from 2011 except for disabled linebacker Parys Harralson, be able to repeat its shutdown shuffle week after week again? Pay no attention to what happened in the exhibition season, when opposing offenses sometimes thrived. Whitner estimates the defense showed just "30 percent to 40 percent" of its available strategic arsenal during the four exhibition games. The other 70 percent will be unleashed against Rodgers and the Packers.
2. Can quarterback Alex Smith take advantage of the upgraded wide receiving corps? Randy Moss caught only two passes in the preseason. If he doesn't catch two in the first half against the Packers, it will be a shock. Roman, the offensive coordinator, surely has drawn up some packages to feature Moss. And in one sense, no player on the team has more to prove, including the rookies.
3. Will the Harbaugh mystique of 2011 carry over into 2012? The 49ers coach, for all his loopiness, did a remarkable job bringing his men to the stadium each Sunday last season ready to play, a skill not to be underestimated. And in another underrated achievement, he was able to retain all of his key assistant coaches throughout the traditional NFL offseason job churn.
I am hardly the first person to make the observation that this 49ers team might be better than the 13-3 outfit of last season but still finish with a worse record. Perusing the improved roster and the opposition, it feels like an 11-5 regular season and a division title. The 49ers' schedule is top heavy, with only two playoff teams among the final 10 opponents. This could lead to a tough start and a strong finish.
That prediction means nothing. Last year before the opening kickoff, it felt like an 8-8 or 7-9 season to me. Anybody who claims they know even one sure thing that will happen Sunday when the first ball on the first kickoff floats down to the first kickoff returner is a big fat liar.
My advice: Just sit back and enjoy the unraveling of the unknown.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 408-920-5092.