alex smith photo 091912

With Alex Smith running the offense, the 49ers are the real deal in the NFL West.

Here are 10 early observations and/or impressions as the National Football League starts off the 2012 season running on all cylinders:

1. Ghost of Vinatieri returns

How this for irony? At almost the exact same time Patriots kicker Stephen Gostkowski (in the midst of the best game of his career with four field goals, including two over 50 yards) badly botches the game-winning attempt from 42 yards on Sunday, the guy he replaced seven years ago, Adam Vinatieri, calmly hit a 53-yard game-winner, breaking a 20-20 tie, in the final seconds for the Colts. It makes you wonder if Vinatieri were still a Patriot, would the history book be a tad different?

2. 49ers are No. 1

The San Francisco 49ers are for real. They really are. They beat the Packers convincingly in Green Bay to open the season, and then beat up the up-and-coming Detroit Lions on Sunday. The 49ers have been a run-the-ball and stop-the-run team the last few years, basically the Baltimore Ravens of the NFC. Well, after two weeks that hasn’t changed. But there is one difference: Quarterback Alex Smith might be pretty good, maybe even better than that. And if that’s the case, all bets are off and the 49ers are the team to beat. This team is tough and now can dominate a game in several areas.

3. Rozelle is smiling

Former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle, who gets as much credit as anybody for creating this love affair fans have with the NFL — he saw it as the perfect sport for TV — has to be a happy camper looking down on his former sport (he passed away in December of 1996). Rozelle often talked about the need for more parity in the league so that there would be continued support for teams for an entire season. It has been joked that a perfect season for the deceased commissioner would be 32 teams at 8-8. Well, through two weeks of the 2012 NFL season there are 20 teams with a 1-1 record.

4. No question: NFC is king

The fact that the 49ers are No. 1 and the NFC has won three consecutive Super Bowls and four out of the last five is pretty telling. The NFC is stronger and has been for a while. But upon further review of the NFL standings after Week 2, it’s even more apparent of the NFC’s dominance. Of the six teams that are 0-2, five are in the AFC. And the only NFC team at 0-2 is the New Orleans Saints, who are the best 0-2 team maybe in history. The point is the AFC is weak from top to especially bottom. And the weakest of the AFC — Cleveland, Oakland, Kansas City, Tennessee and Jacksonvile — are as weak as it gets.

5. Texans are kings ... for now

It appears the Houston Texans are for real. They might have been the best team in the AFC before quarterback Matt Schaub got hurt in Game 10 last year (7-3). Well, he’s already completing 70 percent of his passes with his running back, Arian Foster, carrying most of the offensive load. That being said, we will know a lot more about the Texans a month from now when they have a three-game stretch against N.Y. Jets (away), Packers (home) and Ravens (home) in games five through seven. If they are 7-0 and 6-1, watch out.

6. Bills would love Welker

In case anybody is wondering if there would be a market for Wes Welker, yes, I’m guessing the Buffalo Bills would jump in the fray immediately. Bills coach Chan Gailey was Welker’s presenter in the NFL Network’s Top 100 players. Welker was ranked 50th. Here are a few things he said about Welker on the segment: “He makes plays on the football field. Yeah, he’s got a lot of the intangible things you like ... But the bottom line is: He’s a playmaker ... There’s guys faster than him. There’s guys bigger than him. He’s fought his way to get to where he is. He’s worked his way to get to where he is.”

7. Bears, Cowboys are out

It didn’t take long for the Chicago Bears and Dallas Cowboys to revert to form after great opening weeks. On Sunday, both franchises, stuck in barely-above-mediocrity territory for a few years, picked up where they left off last year. The Bears had a convincing win over the young Colts before they were kicked around like a can by the Packers on Sunday. The Cowboys convincingly beat the defending Super Bowl champs in the opener of the NFL season and then got destroyed by a “weak sister” in Seattle. Basically, don’t expect anything out of the ordinary for these ordinary franchises.

8. Pats enter “must-win” territory

The disappointing loss on Sunday to the Arizona Cardinals could mean nothing. Or, it could be the beginning of the end. The Patriots “easy” schedule suddenly looks a whole lot harder as they play, in succession, (at) Baltimore, (at) Buffalo, Denver, (at) Seattle and the N.Y. Jets. Not one of those games appears easy. In fact, a 3-2 record is not out of the question. But if they win four or all five, then Sunday’s debacle will be a distant memory. In other words, Sunday’s loss wasn’t a big deal ... yet.

9. Where’s the Ravens “D”?

I will make an early prediction. I believe the Patriots will beat the Ravens on Sunday. One, I love the Patriots in “must win” games. And two, the Ravens defense is an utter mess. Through two games, the Ravens have allowed an astounding 129.0 rushing yards per game, ranking 20th in the NFL. Last year, the Ravens were second overall (92.6) and in 2010 they were fifth overall (93.9). The Patriots have to be licking their chops as they have committed to running the ball more in 2012.

10. Oakland is Oakland

I have always counted out the Oakland Raiders the last half-dozen years before the season began, because Al Davis was involved in football operations. Well, I figured or expected things would change a bit, considering they do a have a pretty good quarterback in Carson Palmer. But here we are, two weeks into another year, and the Raiders rank near the bottom in rushing, offensively (31st, 34.0 yards per game) and defensively (29th, 147.5). This franchise has played in one of the weaker divisions the last decade with nothing to show for it.

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