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Another Premature Exit from the Playoffs Caps Off Disappointing Season for the San Francisco 49ers

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COMMENTARY | A vast majority of the franchises around the National Football League would give their right hand to appear in three consecutive conference championship games. What the San Francisco 49ers have done in the last three seasons to go from bottom feeders in a weak division to Super Bowl contenders is nothing short of astonishing.

The aura of success and professionalism that Jim Harbaugh has built in San Francisco has led to a renewed model of what this franchise stood for back in the 1980's.

All that talk is fine and dandy. One thing, however, cannot be ignored. San Francisco failed miserably this season. The end goal for a franchise that had seen two consecutive heartbreaking losses late in the playoffs in each of the past two seasons had to be the Lombardi Trophy. Now that everything is said and done and the Seattle Seahawks are representing the NFC in the Super Bowl, we can draw the final conclusion on the 49ers 2013 season.

They did not live up to expectations.

Late-game losses at the hands of the Carolina Panthers and New Orleans Saints during the regular season put San Francisco behind the proverbial eight ball. Instead of likely hosting Seattle in the NFC Championship game, it had to travel to CenturyLink to take on what is now one of the two best teams in the NFL.

Winners of eight consecutive games and 13 of their last 15, the 49ers still had the confidence to go into the Pacific Northwest and take on a Seahawks team in the most hostile environment in the sports world. There wasn't a single player on the team that doubted that they could come out on top in the harshest of conditions.

After all, San Francisco embraced near zero-degree temperatures at Lambeau Field and took out the Green Bay Packers in the wildcard round. They then went into Carolina and shutdown Cam Newton and the Panthers in another tough environment to earn a shot in the championship game.

After opening up with a 10-0 lead early on, everything started to turn sour for Harbaugh's crew. Injuries to Mike Iupati and NaVorro Bowman highlighted, not only the bad fortune San Francisco was finding itself in, but the resolve of the team.

A goal line stand late in the fourth quarter gave fans in Northern California hope that Colin Kaepernick could drive the offense 85 yards in a bit over 5:00 for the game-winning touchdown. After moving the ball down the field, including a dramatic 20-yard completion to Frank Gore on fourth down, memories of great postseason drives of the past popped into all of our minds.

Then on one play and in one instant, the season was over.

A corner fade against Richard Sherman on first down with two timeouts remaining and inside the 20. That was the play call San Francisco decided to go with in a no-huddle situation with everything on the line. For the second consecutive season, the 49ers fell short on their final drive due to questionable play calling and time management.

Hindsight may be 20/20, but why not run a draw to Frank Gore at some point? What about a read option run with Kaepernick, who had already put up 130 yards on the ground in the game?

Credit must be given to Sherman for making a ridiculous play on the ball...a play that only he could have made. Heck, Kaepernick's throw was near perfect. That isn't the issue at hand. The play calling and decision to hurry up to the line with two timeouts remaining and only 18 yards to go for the win has to be questioned.

We can blame Kaepernick for turning the ball over three times in the final 10 minutes of the game. We can give credit to Seattle's defense for stepping up when it needed to the most. Both are 100 percent correct.

We still, however, have to look at how San Francisco failed to make the plays and the play calls necessary to represent a true championship team.

For the third consecutive season, San Francisco heads into months of roster building, draft preparation and player personnel decisions with a sour taste in its mouth. After all, these last three seasons ended pretty much due to their own failures late in games. Whether its the coaching and play calling or the execution on the field, really isn't the point. The 49ers just couldn't get it done.

The window remains wide open for San Francisco to hoist a sixth Lombardi Trophy. That window isn't closing anytime soon with the young talent on the roster and the coaching that we've seen over these last three seasons.

From here on out, anything less than a Super Bowl championship is a disappointment for the San Francisco 49ers. That started once Harbaugh built a consistent contender and it will continue until proven otherwise.

In the end, Moneyball summed it up right, "if we don't win the last game...they'll dismiss us."

Billy Beane isn't wrong, and now it's time for the 49ers to embrace that motto. They can no longer be happy with playing into late January or early February. It's now all has to be about adding to the trophy case in Santa Clara.

Until then, everything is a disappointment.

Vincent Frank has been covering the National Football League for three years. He started out writing for Bleacher Report and is currently the head editor at eDraft and a columnist at Pro Football Focus. Vincent co-hosts a weekly radio show called "Football Debate Central" with former NFL player Ryan Riddle and has seen his work featured on CNN, BR and Los Angeles Times, among many other outlets.

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