After falling just short of Super Bowl berth, 49ers back for more 

They didn’t have a prayer.

Or that’s what the “experts” opined.

“We all know [where] they thought we were going to finish last year,” Alex Smith said recently, “and how right they were about that.”

The “they” whom the 49ers quarterback — who will enter his eighth season with San Francisco — was referring to were the slew of media wise guys who predetermined that the 49ers’ 2011 season was one destined for mediocrity.

“They” were proven wrong.

Skippered by tenacious first-year coach Jim Harbaugh and anchored by an unrelenting defense, San Francisco pillaged its way to its first NFC West title since 2002 last season, and its first NFC Championship Game since 1997.

And despite losing that game in overtime to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants, the “experts” now have the 49ers slated among the favorites to hoist the Lombardi Trophy.

But Smith, fresh off his finest season as a professional, isn’t worried about those predictions either.

“It’s all about what we expect,” Smith said. “And we have to go out there and we have to do it. So, it doesn’t really matter what anyone else is thinking.”

But if there is a universal thought that both player and pundit share, it’s that if San Francisco is to make its sixth Super Bowl appearance and its first in 18 years, they’ll have to improve.

And in a schedule that features the Green Bay Packers, the New Orleans Saints and the New England Patriots — all road affairs — improvement will be demanded.

The five-time Super Bowl champs ranked second to last in third-down conversions during the regular season, clocking a dismal 29.4 percent. And in the postseason it was worse, as their conversion percentage was 17.9.  But offensive coordinator Greg Roman, who will enter his second season with the club, has his own opinion on stats.

“A very wise man said this to me and I found it to be true,” Roman said. “‘You can look at statistics … but the thing you want to know is why are these statistics the way they are?’”

In regard to third downs, Roman cites “a lack of execution, a lack of cohesion.”

“I would attribute that to really just time on task. And I would fully expect our third-down production to be much better due to the fact that we’ve got a lot more time invested in it,” Roman said.

The recent offensive additions of receivers Randy Moss and Mario Manningham should help with that, as should the addition of running back Brandon Jacobs.

But despite the vertical threats, Smith won’t deviate from his plan.

“The goal is obviously, the more weapons you have the better,” Smith said. “In the end, I’m still going to take what the defense gives me.”

The 49ers defense, however, didn’t give much. Still intact from last year, they ranked first in turnover ratio and rushing yards allowed. But it’s the team’s premier rusher who’s relishing September.

“Whenever it’s time for me to go,” Frank Gore said, “hopefully for Green Bay, I’m going to be full speed.”

And according to the experts, Green Bay is only nine days away.

Impact Players

Aldon Smith

It’s tough to have a better debut season than what the defensive lineman did in 2011. Smith led the team in sacks with 14 and was constantly harassing opposing QBs. But in the offseason, Smith was stabbed at a house party and battled a hip injury in training camp.

Randy Moss

The enigmatic wide receiver is back in the NFL and the majority of reports that came out of training camp were glowing. Moss’ ability to get behind defenses is what sets him apart. But after a year out of the game in 2011 and a tumultuous 2010 split between three teams, the question is how much does he have left in the tank.

Vernon Davis

The tight end had a solid regular season last year but turned it up a notch in the postseason, totaling 292 yards and four touchdowns in two playoff games. His speed and size combination creates a matchup nightmare for the opposition and he has clearly developed a rapport over the years with QB Alex Smith.

Carlos Rogers

Few knew what to expect out of the cornerback in 2011 after he fell out of favor with the Washington Redskins. But Rogers had a resurgent season, plucking six interceptions en route to a trip to the Pro Bowl. After signing a four-year, $31.3 million deal in the offseason, 31-year-old Rogers has helped solidify the 49ers’ secondary.

Patrick Willis

While the Pro Bowler didn’t lead the team in tackles last year — NaVorro Bowman held that honor — Willis remains one of the most feared and talented linebackers in the NFL. Despite missing three games, he still notched 97 tackles, two sacks, one interception and forced four fumbles.

49ers 2012 Schedule

Date Opponent Time
Sept. 9 at Green Bay 1:25 p.m.
Sept. 16 vs. Detroit 5:20 p.m.
Sept. 23 at Minnesota 10 a.m.
Sept. 30 at N.Y. Jets 10 a.m.
Oct. 7 vs. Buffalo 1:25 p.m.
Oct. 14 vs. N.Y. Giants 1:25 p.m.
Oct. 18 vs. Seattle 5:20 p.m.
Oct. 29 at Arizona 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 Bye
Nov. 11 vs. St. Louis 1:25 p.m.
Nov. 19 vs. Chicago 5:30 p.m.
Nov. 25 at New Orleans 1:25 p.m.
Dec. 2 at St. Louis 10 a.m.
Dec. 9 vs. Miami 1:05 p.m.
Dec. 16 New England 5:20 p.m.
Dec. 23 at Seattle 1:25 p.m.
Dec. 30 vs. Arizona 1:25 p.m.
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