Niners champing at the bit to atone for loss in Super Bowl 

click to enlarge Coach Jim Harbaugh has done wonders in just two years with the 49ers. - JEFF CURRY/2012 USA TODAY SPORTS FILE PHOTO
  • Jeff Curry/2012 USA Today Sports file photo
  • Coach Jim Harbaugh has done wonders in just two years with the 49ers.

The 49ers' return to glory isn't complete just yet.

Not when the proud franchise — winner of five Lombardi trophies — came so close to winning a sixth Super Bowl in a three-point loss to the Baltimore Ravens in February. The image of 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh jumping and screaming and doing everything short of having a heart attack on the game's most scrutinized play — Colin Kaepernick's pass sailing just out of the reach of intended target Michael Crabtree, who was bumped by Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith two yards past the 5-yard bump zone — epitomized the eyelash of a margin between winning and losing, championship glory and bitter emptiness.

But if you're expecting the 49ers to be suffering from a Super Bowl-sized hangover, forget about it.

"We're back into action and the senses, the instincts are honed once again," Harbaugh said. "When you do that the competition is there. Guys fighting for spots coming in. 'Will I make the team? Will I play well?' For some guys, 'Is this my last year in football?'

"There's just a lot of things and there's an attack on the nerves right now. There's some angst, there's some butterflies, excitement, enthusiasm, all of those things are going through the player's nervous system right now. How do I know that? Because I have them, too, and I can't wait to get out back into the action and just literally throw yourself back into the action."

The 49ers enter the 2013 season as arguably the most complete team in football, but there are still plenty of question marks. The wide receiving corps is at the top of the list, the addition of Anquan Boldin notwithstanding. The 49ers are lacking quality frontline receivers because of injuries to Michael Crabtree (Achilles) and Mario Manningham (still recovering from last year's ACL tear).

"There's been some nicks and you try to dodge bullets," Harbaugh said. "Sometimes, you don't dodge them all."

The loss of cornerback Chris Culliver, who suffered a season-ending torn ACL in an Aug. 1 practice, has left the secondary in flux. Eric Reid, the team's first-round draft pick, looks to be the front-runner to replace the departed Dashon Goldson at free safety, but it's hard to imagine Reid supplying the 49ers with the same impact and production that the Pro Bowler Goldson did in the last couple of seasons — not this year, at least.

And yet if cornerback Nnamdi Asomugha can regain the form that made him a perennial All-Pro during his time with the Raiders, the 49ers' secondary would instantly turn into a more stout unit. Better yet, having a healthy Justin Smith is paramount. The 49ers' defense wasn't nearly the same after Smith got injured in a Week 15 win over the New England Patriots.

Save the receiving position, the 49ers' offense is downright potent with Kaepernick, who took over for departed quarterback Alex Smith midway through the 2012 season and led the team to a 7-3 record, averaging a hefty 8.32 yards per pass attempt while dazzling onlookers with his combination of athleticism, pinpoint passes and ability to beat teams with his legs.

Still, it has to be noted that a half-season does not make a quarterback, and Kaepernick will have to continue to improve as defenses adjust to him.

As the 49ers enter the 2013 campaign, they'll have to buck some tremendous odds to bring home another Lombardi Trophy. The last team to lose the Super Bowl and win it the following year was the 1972 Miami Dolphins. History aside, the 49ers are built to win — and win now.

"The hunger is definitely there," Asomugha said. "When you can be a talented group and still be mature, still be disciplined, still have that focus and still be working hard, then you have a chance to do some special things, and I think that's what we have in this locker room. I think it's a beautiful thing."


Kap's team

The 49ers took their level of play to another level last season when Colin Kaepernick took over for Alex Smith at quarterback. His powerful arm and ability to run the read-option offense gave opposing defenses fits. The question now becomes: Can Kaepernick do it again? And if so, can he take the next step and become one of the NFL's elite. San Francisco can ill afford a serious injury or any slip in play from the third-year signal caller. As Kaepernick goes, the 49ers go.

Back to dominant defense

Through the first 13 games of last season, the Niners allowed 14.2 points per game. However, the switch flipped down the stretch. In the final six, which includes three postseason games, that number jumped up to 29.7. The 49ers don't want to get into shootouts week in and week out, so they'll need to figure out what went wrong late in 2012. A fully healthy Justin Smith and Aldon Smith, both who underwent offseason surgeries, should go a long way in helping the cause.

Receiving line

With Michael Crabtree sidelined at least until November with a torn Achilles and reserve tight end Delanie Walker departing in free agency, the 49ers have a void in the receiving game they need filled. Veteran wideout Anquan Boldin will be leaned on heavily, but he can't do it alone. Between Marlon Moore, Kyle Williams, and Quinton Patton, someone needs to step up. Rookie tight end Vance McDonald also needs to show he warranted the second-round pick the 49ers used on him.


Kendall Hunter

With Frank Gore hitting the infamous age of 30, where running backs tend to see their careers tail off, the third-year back will be a key cog in 2013. With LaMichael James sidelined with a sprained MCL, Hunter will likely see the bulk of the action behind Gore, especially early on.

Eric Reid

The rookie out of LSU has big shoes to fill after Pro Bowler Dashon Goldson bolted for greener pastures in the offseason and joined the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Reid will need to show he can play both the run and the pass effectively. At times last season, the 49ers' safeties got beat over the top and San Francisco can ill afford Reid to do the same.

Phil Dawson

The veteran kicker was brought in to try and provide stability to the position after an extremely erratic season from David Akers in 2012. Dawson has long been one of the league's most consistent kickers, having made at least 82 percent of his field-goal attempts each of the past six seasons. But at 38, he's also one of the NFL's oldest kickers and his ability to adapt to the elements at blustery Candlestick Park is a concern.

Anquan Boldin

With last year's leading receiver, Michael Crabtree, sidelined by a torn Achilles, the 49ers will need a consistent weapon for QB Colin Kaepernick to emerge. Boldin should be able to provide that. The veteran was an integral part of the Baltimore Ravens' Super Bowl run last season and has five 1,000-yard receiving seasons under his belt. The rest of the receiving corps is filled with youth and inexperience, making it even more vital for Boldin to perform.

Aldon Smith

The third-year linebacker was terrorizing opposing quarterbacks through the first 13 games of last season, racking up a mind-boggling 19½ sacks. But then tag-team partner Justin Smith went down with an injury and Aldon Smith's production slipped big time.

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