COMMENTARY | In 2011, head coach Jim Harbaugh took over the San Francisco 49ers, led them to their first winning season since 2002 and got them to the NFC title game.
Last season, Harbaugh and company reached Super Bowl XLVII. But the game was in New Orleans and not Philadelphia, and so much for "brotherly love" as John Harbaugh's Baltimore Ravens prevailed 34-31.
The logical progression says the Niners get to Super Bowl XLVIII and win it. However, it's also worth noting that the last team to lose the Super Bowl and win it the following season was the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
Still, it's on to 2013 and here we will take a look at five players who could be critical to the team's success this upcoming season. While in some cases the obvious will be stated, in other instances the focus will be on a newcomer to the team or a performer looking to rebound from a disappointing year.
So here are five players to keep an eye on this season when it comes to the defending NFC champion San Francisco 49ers:
QB Colin Kaepernick: We saw flashes of the former second-round draft choice during the season. After then-starter Alex Smith suffered a concussion in what would wind up a tie at home with the St. Louis Rams, Kaepernick took over for good and helped lead the team to its first Super Bowl appearance since the 1994 season. Now the young signal-caller opens the season as the starter and you can look for him to pick up where he left off last season -- both through the air and on the ground. Just ask the Green Bay Packers (who the team opens with this season).
RB Frank Gore: The franchise's all-time rushing leader has been remarkably consistent throughout his career and especially the last two seasons. The eight-year veteran ran for 1,214 yards and eight scores in 2012 after totaling 1,211 yards and eight touchdowns on the ground the previous season. Thanks to arguably the best offensive line in the league, the Niners' rushing attack was fourth in the NFL a year ago. And the steady Gore is backed up by talented runners such as Kendall Hunter and LaMichael James.
WR Anquan Boldin: A season ago, the sure-handed wideout was busy leading the Ravens in receptions both during the regular season and playoffs and proved to be a handful for the Niners' secondary in the Super Bowl. Now Boldin is back in the division where his career began, and he hopes to make life easier for the young Kaepernick, who won't have both Michael Crabtree and Mario Manningham at his disposal anytime soon. Boldin remains one of the most physical wide receivers in the league, which will come in handy in the rugged NFC West.
OLB Aldon Smith: After totaling 14 sacks as a rookie, Smith was one of the hottest pass-rushers in the league last season. The outside linebacker totaled 19.5 sacks in his first 13 games in 2012. But the combination of injuries to both him and Pro-Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith severely hampered the San Francisco defense down the stretch and in the postseason. All told, the two-year pro went without a sack in his last six total outings a year ago. Smith will be looking for retribution early and often in 2013.
FS Eric Reid: The team's first-round pick in April will be in the starting lineup for the season opener as Reid takes over for veteran Dashon Goldson. The two-time Pro-Bowler took the free-agent route out of town and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Last season, including their three-game playoff run, the Niners allowed 19 offensive touchdowns in their last six games, 14 of those scores through the air. You could see quite a few news looks in a San Francisco secondary that now includes Reid and veteran cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha.
So what can we expect from the 49ers in 2013? Can the team be the best in the NFC West for a third straight year? And who else will play an extremely pivotal role in the team's fortunes this season? It should be an interesting season for this revived franchise.
Russell S. Baxter has spent the last 40-plus years watching football. He is the founder of ProFootballGuru.com, writes for numerous websites and publications across the country and is blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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