It's been quite a two-year run for head coach Jim Harbaugh and the San Francisco 49ers.
Remember, this was a franchise that had gone eight-straight years without a winning season before the former Stanford head coach's arrival in 2011. Harbaugh's first campaign culminated with a three-point loss in the NFC title game. His second season resulted in February's 34-31 loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
So it's easy to see how the third time could or will be the charm.
And San Francisco will make it a third straight trip to the playoffs…
If: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco offense continue to progress. Including the playoff run last season, the former second-round draft pick has only started 10 games. But the 49ers gave him a great gift this offseason with the addition via trade of wide receiver Anquan Boldin, who was busy catching six passes for 104 yards and the game's first touchdown for the Ravens against the Niners in the Super Bowl.
And: Harabugh's team continues to play efficient football. In 2011, with quarterback Alex Smith at the controls, the 49ers tied the NFL record for fewest turnovers in a season (10). Last season, even with the switch at quarterback, the Niners gave up the ball just 16 times during the regular season and had just four turnovers in three playoff games. Combine that with the league's fourth-ranked ground game and this club can dictate tempo.
But: If the San Francisco defense has issues as it did a year ago down the stretch it could be a disappointing season. Many point to the injury that shelved Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith for a few games and wound up limiting his effectiveness in the playoffs. Hence outside linebacker Aldon Smith (19.5 sacks in his first 13 games, zero the rest of the season) wasn't the same player without the other Smith preoccupying the offensive line.
Including their playoff run, the 49ers allowed 178 points in their last six games after giving up just 184 points in their first 13 games last season. But the defense is now minus Pro Bowl free safety Dashon Goldson (Buccaneers) and nose tackle Isaac Sopoaga (Eagles) via free agency.
So what do you think? The last team to win the Super Bowl the season after losing the Big Game was the perfect 1972 Miami Dolphins. But will the 49ers even be back in the playoffs thanks to a division that has made leaps and bounds the last few seasons?
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, can be heard on Yahoo! Sports Radio and many other networks and was blessed with an encyclopedic memory. Ready to talk NFL? Follow him on Twitter at @BaxFootballGuru.
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