COMMENTARY | The San Francisco 49ers came just five yards shy of hoisting their first Super Bowl title since 1994. Despite falling short to the Baltimore Ravens, the franchise's arrow is still trending upward based on their recent run of success. Can the 49ers make a return trip to the big game in 2013? Only time will tell if they are capable of breaking the dreaded "Super Bowl curse." The last time a Super Bowl loser made it back the following year to claim victory was the 1972 Miami Dolphins.
San Francisco features a stacked roster on both sides of the ball. They have a franchise-caliber quarterback in Colin Kaepernick, a stout offensive line and running back Frank Gore, who has yet to show signs of wearing down. Defensively, San Francisco has Pro-Bowl caliber talent on all three levels of the field. Even though Patrick Willis remains the leader, outside linebacker Aldon Smith is a rising star at just 23 years old. He has nowhere to go but up.
Since Harbaugh arrived in San Francisco two seasons ago, the 49ers have gone 24-7-1 during the regular season, including a trip to the NFC Championship Game, as well as the aforementioned Super Bowl appearance. Despite being a young coach in terms of experience, Harbaugh understands his players, often bringing out the best in them.
Michael Crabtree, who has begun to thrive under Harbaugh, suffered a torn Achilles during Organized Team Activities in May. This setback could sideline him for most, if not all of the 2013 campaign. The young wideout enjoyed a career year last season, recording 85 receptions for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns. He also played a key role in the 49ers' Super Bowl run. After three disappointing seasons, he was coming into his own. Aside from the newly-acquired Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, the 49ers have question marks at receiver.
On the bright side, the 49ers may have struck gold in the draft by selecting LSU safety Eric Reid in the first round, and FSU defensive end Cornellius "Tank" Carradine in the second. Their impact should be felt right from the start. A darkhorse who could make noise in his rookie year is Louisiana Tech's Quinton Patton. If he can make a smooth transition to the pros, San Francisco will be able to maintain its offensive efficiency to some degree despite losing Crabtree.
Getting back to the Super Bowl will not be an easy task even for an experienced team like the 49ers. They won't sneak up on anyone in 2013 and the NFC West has gotten stronger. Perhaps their greatest threat lies within their own division in the Seattle Seahawks. They have an emerging quarterback in Russell Wilson, and picked up multi-threat receiver Percy Harvin in the offseason. The Seahawks also fielded the league's best scoring defense in 2012, making them a complete team from top to bottom.
Although the St. Louis Rams went just 7-8 last season, they gave the 49ers fits. Entering their second season under head coach Jeff Fisher, the Rams should become even more competitive. They have a formidable defensive line and the addition of rookie receiver Tavon Austin will give Sam Bradford a legitimate game changer.
While the 49ers did not have much trouble against the Arizona Cardinals last year, they have a young, talented defense led by Patrick Peterson. The addition of head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer should give them some punch offensively.
History indicates that the odds are not in the 49ers' favor of returning to the title game. However, with a trusted coaching staff to guide Kaepernick and a defense returning nine of its 11 starters, the team is poised to make another deep postseason run.
Considering Harbaugh's track record, you can never rule them out of the Super Bowl hunt.
Travis Chan is a Yahoo! Contributor in Sports covering the San Francisco 49ers. You can follow him on Twitter.
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