San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) crosses the goal...

San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick (7) crosses the goal line for a touchdown as wide receiver Michael Crabtree (15) reacts in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. (Feb. 3, 2013) Credit: AP

The list of playoff-caliber teams in the NFC is long, with a case to be made for well more than half the conference when it comes to handicapping the contenders.

San Francisco and Seattle in the West. Maybe all four teams in the North, with Green Bay leading the way. You want to choose among New Orleans, Atlanta, Carolina and Tampa Bay in the South? And if Philly improves under new coach Chip Kelly, are we looking at all four teams in the East having a shot?

Just about anywhere you look in this conference, you see quality. This conference is stacked.

"Whoever represents the NFC in this year's Super Bowl, you've done something because you're coming out of a very crowded division,'' said former NFL tight end Shannon Sharpe, now a CBS commentator. "There are just so many good teams in this conference right now.''

He's right. So get ready to see plenty of quality football in the NFC, and all the unpredictability that goes with it.

So who makes it all the way to MetLife Stadium in February? Don't be surprised to see a return engagement for the 49ers, who got to the Super Bowl last year thanks to emerging quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a bruising defense led by a terrific front seven.

Kaepernick's unique blend of passing and running frequently made the 49ers' offense impossible to deal with last season, and now that he's entrenched as the starter, things only figure to get better. He'll be without his favorite receiver, Michael Crabtree, for an extended period because of Crabtree's Achilles injury. But former Ravens receiver Anquan Boldin, who helped beat the 49ers in the Super Bowl last season, is in town. And tight end Vernon Davis is another receiving threat.

Frank Gore remains one of the NFL's best backs, and the offensive line is terrific.

That defensive front featuring linebackers Patrick Willis, NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith is as menacing a group as there is in the NFL, and the Niners hope they can patch together a secondary that was their weak link on defense last year. But it's a lot easier to play defensive back when you've got so many strong players in front of you.

The 49ers will be anxious to make up for their Super Bowl defeat, and although history shows a Super Bowl loser hasn't come back to win the following season since the 1972 Dolphins, the 49ers have a legitimate shot.

And if not? There's plenty to choose from. We're tempted by San Francisco's biggest rival, Seattle, which got to the NFC divisional round before losing to the Falcons. Second-year quarterback Russell Wilson is terrific, already one of the smartest quarterbacks in the league. And Pete Carroll loaded up on an already good defense in free agency and the draft.

If not Seattle, then how about the Falcons, who came within a whisker of beating the 49ers in the NFC Championship Game last season?

Can the Saints rebound now that Sean Payton is back? Did the Bucs buy their way into contention with Darrelle Revis and Dashon Goldson? Do the Giants somehow sneak in and make a third title run in the Tom Coughlin-Eli Manning era?

Sharpe is right. With the NFC deck stacked as it is, whoever gets to the Super Bowl will have earned it. And once they get there, they'll win.

We'll take the 49ers.

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