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The 49ers made a stunning run to the NFC title game two years ago in coach Jim Harbaugh’s rookie season, only to fall 20–17 in overtime to the New York Giants on a cold, rainy night at Candlestick Park. Last season the 49ers regrouped and reached the Super Bowl but lost 34–31 to Baltimore when their final drive died at the Ravens’ 5-yard line after three straight Colin Kaepernick incomplete passes.
After taking two huge steps forward in their quest to win the franchise’s sixth Super Bowl, the 49ers appear to have all the pieces in place to take the final step and accomplish that feat this season. But history tells us how hard it will be.
Twenty straight Super Bowl losers failed to reach the Super Bowl the following season. Only two teams in NFL history won a Super Bowl the year after losing the ultimate game. The last? Miami, 41 seasons ago. Only five other Super Bowl losers — including Buffalo three straight years — advanced that far the next season.
Of course that’s just the kind of challenge Harbaugh loves. And it helps to have a team packed with Pro Bowl players.
Athlon Sports NFC Power Ranking: 1st
Two years ago, the 49ers ran an ultra-conservative, just-don’t-screw-things-up offense that was overshadowed by one of the NFL’s most dominant defenses. And now? With the dual-threat Kaepernick under center from Day 1, the 49ers’ offense will demand as much if not more attention than their shutdown defense.
Kaepernick made his first NFL start in Week 11 last season against the Chicago Bears, filling in for Alex Smith, who suffered a concussion the week before against St. Louis. Kaepernick passed for 243 yards and two touchdowns in a 32–7 win on the Monday Night Football stage. That was enough to convince Harbaugh to make a dramatic QB switch. Kaepernick started every game the rest of the season, and Smith was traded to Kansas City in March.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman did a masterful job retooling the 49ers’ offense in midseason to fit his young QB’s exceptional running ability and arm strength. Roman hit opposing defenses with a heavy dose of zone-read out of the Pistol formation, an offense Kaepernick ran in college at Nevada. Now Roman will have an entire offseason and training camp to refine his offense and devise new ways to take advantage of Kaepernick’s strengths.
The 49ers boast one of the NFL’s best offensive lines and most diverse running attacks, which became even more dangerous once Kaepernick joined running back Frank Gore in the starting backfield. The 49ers can still hammer away at opposing defenses with their power running game and creative blocking schemes. But now those defenses also have to prepare for Kaepernick and the zone-read. He rushed for 415 yards and five touchdowns on just 63 carries last year. Gore, meanwhile, showed no signs of slowing down. He rushed for 1,214 yards, giving him 8,839 for his career, an ongoing 49ers record. The 49ers return all five starting offensive linemen, including left tackle Joe Staley and left guard Mike Iupati, a pair of Pro Bowl picks last year. This group should only get better.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree had a breakout year, catching 85 passes for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns, all career highs. He won't have the chance to exceed those this season, however, as he tore his Achilles in late May. As expected, he has been placed on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list, but there's a chance he may be able to return before the end of the regular season. Veteran Mario Manningham also will start the season on the PUP list as he continues his recovery from a knee injury he sustained in December. This makes the offseason acquisition of ex-Raven Anquan Boldin, a three-time Pro Bowl pick who the 49ers traded for in March, even more important. Boldin and explosive tight end Vernon Davis will serve as Kaepernick's primary targets, but other options need to emerge. Fourth-year pro Kyle Williams, former Kansas City Chief Jon Baldwin and fourth-round pick Quinton Patton are among the candidates who could contribute. Williams caught 14 passes for the 49ers last season, while Baldwin was acquired via trade from Kansas City in exchange for A.J. Jenkins, San Francisco's first-round pick in 2012. The hope is that a change of scenery will help Baldwin recapture the form that the Chiefs saw in him when they took him in the first round of the 2011 NFL Draft.
The 49ers return nine of 11 starters from a dominant defense that ranked third overall and fourth against both the run and pass. Five of those returning starters are coming off Pro Bowl seasons: outside linebacker Aldon Smith, inside linebackers Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, strong safety Donte Whitner and defensive lineman Justin Smith.
In other words, the 49ers are stacked again, despite losing free safety Dashon Goldson to Tampa Bay, nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga to Philadelphia and backup defensive lineman Ricky Jean Francois to Indianapolis as free agents. Rookie Eric Reid, a first-round pick from LSU, won the battle during training camp to replace Goldson. Should Reid falter or struggle early, the 49ers have another solid option at free safety in free agent pickup Craig Dahl, who started all 16 games for the Rams last season, making 78 tackles and intercepting one pass. He’s played 70 games with 42 starts over five NFL seasons. The 49ers also found their replacement for Sopoaga during camp. Third-year pro Ian Williams will get the starting nod at defensive tackle with former Kansas City Chief and free agent acquisition Glenn Dorsey slotting in behind him.
The strength of San Francisco’s defense will again be against the run, with Justin Smith, Willis, Bowman and Whitner leading the way. Willis underwent surgery to repair a fractured right hand in early August, but the All-Pro tackle machine is expected to be available to play in Week 1.
The 49ers’ secondary showed some vulnerability during the postseason when opposing teams threw eight touchdown passes in just three games. San Francisco signed free agent Nnamdi Asomugha, a former Pro Bowl corner, who will try to resurrect his career after two rough years with the Eagles. The ex-Raider will fill the nickel slot as the projected starter there, Chris Culliver, tore his ACL earlier in training camp and has been placed on injured reserve.
In just his second NFL season and first as a starter, outside linebacker Aldon Smith had 19.5 sacks, second in the league behind J.J. Watt’s 20.5. Smith will be counted on again to supply most of the pass-rush pressure, but strong-side linebacker Ahmad Brooks is coming off a 6.5-sack season and has shown a knack for getting to the quarterback on blitzes.
Kicker David Akers had a nightmare season, and the 49ers made no effort to re-sign him. They quickly signed free agent Phil Dawson, who is coming off his first Pro Bowl season at age 38. Considering how bad Akers was last year, Dawson should be a decided upgrade. Dawson made 29-of-31 attempts last year for the Cleveland Browns, including all seven tries from 50-plus yards. He’s 14-of-15 from 50-plus over the past two seasons. Last year, Akers was 9-for-19 from 40-plus. Andy Lee, a four-time All-Pro pick, returns to handle the punting duties. Last year he averaged 48.1 yards per punt with a net of 43.2, tied for first in the NFL.
LaMichael James should provide a big-play threat as a kick returner. As a rookie last year, he averaged 29.8 yards on 14 returns. Punt returner Ted Ginn Jr. left as a free agent. Kyle Williams, who underwent ACL surgery in December, will contend for the job.
Final Analysis: 1st in NFC West
It’s Super Bowl or bust. With their roster loaded with Pro Bowl players, the 49ers are all but a lock to make the playoffs, but they’ll face a fierce battle from Seattle in the NFC West and might have to travel the tougher wild card route. If Kaepernick stays healthy, the 49ers could well wind up back in the Super Bowl with a chance to make history.
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