The 2011 San Francisco 49ers season ended in the same manner as the last few.
The difference, however, was in the context.
In the past, the 49ers would get bounced out in the regular season. This time, they made it to overtime of the NFC Championship but ultimately lost to the New York Giants.
The loss was attributed to poor punt returning and a woefully conservative offense that lacked explosion at the wide receiver spot.
These two problems had plagued the 49ers for the better part of almost 10 years now.
This season, Ted Ginn Jr. was able to sure up the return game and the creativity of new head coach Jim Harbaugh, and his staff brought the best out of their offensive unit.
Yet in the final game, when it mattered most, the mirrors on offense were finally shattered by a relentless New York Giants defense, and an injury to Ginn forced youngster Kyle Williams into the return spot.
Sadly, Kyle Williams, unless he redeems himself in spectacular fashion, will sink down to the depths of the doldrums of 49ers lore as he muffed one fourth-quarter punt and fumbled another in overtime.
The two turnovers were the difference in the ballgame for a team in San Francisco who led the league in turnover margin.
This is how the season ended.
It began in a much more innocent fashion.
With virtually no offseason of preparation to speak of, coach Harbaugh and his staff galvanized a roster that was seemingly void of talent.
As the weeks and wins raged on, the talent began to cipher and take form. With each week of practice, players improved and became more dominant.
They had another fourth-quarter comeback as the 49ers took down the Detroit Lions in the dome, leading to coach Harbaugh's now infamous handshake with Lions head coach Jim Schwartz.
A win at home against the Giants.
A win at home against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Monday Night Football.
A near-sweep of the division with one hiccup in Arizona.
A division title with a win at home against the St. Louis Rams, marking the first time the 49ers would make the playoffs in nine years.
Then the divisional round, where the mighty New Orleans Saints came into Candlestick and Alex Smith crowned a signature moment with a winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left in the game.
What the franchise and the fans can take away from this season is hope—hope that the 49ers are no longer a bumbling team in constant transition like so many others in this league.
They have restored ties to the Bill Walsh coaching tree with Jim Harbaugh, and they grounded their front office for the first time in a decade.
In the locker room, the players were united after years of division.
Going into next year, the 49ers can boast a championship defense and will certainly improve their offense with more talent as well as more offseason preparation.
Reaching the NFC title game is not easy. And opportunities like that may not and do not come often.
But for the first time in a long time, the 49ers will be one of the front-runners to get back to that spot in the 2012 season.
For the first time in a long time, it smells like Championship football in San Francisco.