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Quarterback Colin Kaepernick walked off the field in defeat Sunday but proved again that he's an extraordinary playmaker. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Just getting to a Super Bowl is hard, so the taste of defeat after losing one can be lasting.
The 49ers’ trek to Super Bowl XLVII started in July, then continued through six months of the preseason and regular season, with ups and downs, injuries and disappointments and one of the boldest moves ever made by a coach, the benching of a successful starting quarterback for a raw second-year player with loads of promise but little experience.
Now the process begins all over again.
There’s no guarantee the Niners will reach Super Bowl XLVIII in New Jersey a year from now. Even great teams are upset in the do-or-die playoffs, and injuries can take their toll at any time.
But the 49ers who lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens Sunday night in New Orleans appear to be a team that will be in the mix for the NFL’s championship for several years.
As San Francisco Chronicle columnist Scott Ostler wrote after the game: “Something special has been happening with the San Francisco professional football team. Sunday was a Mount Everest of a speed bump, but the 49ers are for real. Have been since Jim Harbaugh arrived before last season, and show no sign that that will change anytime soon.”
Over the past two seasons under Baalke and Harbaugh, the 49ers have gone to the playoffs twice and won three games and they’ve compiled a 27-9-1 record.
Still, the road back to the Super Bowl won’t be easy. The NFC West is no pushover any more, and the Seattle Seahawks have now emerged as an NFC force and the Cardinals are probably just a quarterback away from being a contender. The Rams under Jeff Fisher also are likely to improve. Winning the NFC West in 2013 is going to be more of a battle than it was in 2011 or 2012.
Plus, the 49ers need to add depth to their defense. As shown in the Super Bowl – and in a near loss to the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game – the secondary can be vulnerable, and that can be addressed by adding more young pass rushers, a future replacement for Justin Smith and help at cornerback.
Still, the 49ers’ future looks bright.
As the Chronicle’s Ostler wrote, “There is nothing to indicate that this team isn’t for real, that it won’t continue to be a force.”
Added Ostler, to grieving Niners fans: “Step back and look at it as you would view an oil painting, ignoring minor flaws, and ask yourself: With the momentary exception of the Baltimore Ravens, who’s got it better than us? Seriously.”