Ben Margot, AP
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) scrambles as Arizona Cardinals defensive end Darnell Dockett (90) reaches for him in the fourth quarter of an NFL football game in San Francisco, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 20, 2011.

Hope. Sometimes, it's the only thing that keeps us going. Especially in the most important game — the game of life.

When we're struggling through our daily challenges, we hope that tomorrow will be a better day. We hope we'll have enough money to pay all the bills. We hope that our children and other loved ones will always be safe, that our health will remain good, and that our employer won't suddenly decide he can get by just fine without us.

And without hope, many of life's trials would become unbearable.

Then there are life's lesser games, the ones played between athletic teams — although many fans might feel (and often act) like those games are a matter of life and death, too.

I hate to break this to you, but they aren't.

But they're mighty important to us just the same. If they weren't, there certainly wouldn't be any such thing as ESPN, Sports Beat Sunday or the sports section of the newspaper that some of you are holding in your hands right now.

So when it comes to the world of sports, here are some things I'm hoping to see happen for a few local folks in the weeks ahead: I hope to never again hear anyone question whether former U. of U. quarterback Alex Smith belongs in the NFL. After the terrific season he's had and the tremendous, clutch way he came through in a thrilling playoff victory over the New Orleans Saints last weekend, the San Francisco 49ers' quarterback has definitely shown he can play — and win — at this level.

I hope former Highland High star Haloti Ngata, now an All-Pro defensive tackle for the Ravens, and former Ute standout Paul Kruger, who played his prep football at Timpanogos High, and their fellow Baltimore defenders can find a way to stop Tom Brady and the high-scoring New England Patriots in Sunday's AFC Championship game.

I hope the BYU men's basketball team's disappointing double-digit defeat against Loyola Marymount a couple of days ago doesn't greatly diminish the Cougars' chances of reaching this year's NCAA Tournament.

I hope it doesn't take the University of Utah men's basketball program, with its proud longtime winning tradition, too long to rebuild from this disastrous season.

I hope Weber State basketball star Damian Lillard wins the NCAA scoring title, leads the Wildcats to an NCAA tourney berth and decides to return for his senior season at WSU.

I hope Utah State University basketball fans continue to make the Smith Spectrum the best home-court atmosphere in the state, even though the Aggies aren't having their typical 25-win season.

I hope a couple of good guys, Utah Valley men's basketball coach Dick Hunsaker and his Southern Utah counterpart, Roger Reid, can guide their respective teams to strong finishes over the final six weeks of the season.

I hope the Utah Jazz continue to surprise all those people who expected the franchise to fail so miserably this season, and that Tyrone Corbin winds up winning the NBA Coach of the Year award — the one Jerry Sloan so richly deserved at least a couple of times during his career but never received.

And I hope our readers forget that, a couple of weeks ago, I boldly (and stupidly) picked either the Packers or the Saints — both of whom were vanquished from the NFC playoffs last weekend — to win this year's Super Bowl.