5 Challenges the San Francisco 49ers Must Overcome to Be Successful in 2014
San Francisco has experienced three NFC Championship Games and one agonizing Super Bowl defeat since he took over in 2011. The talent-laden roster is finally realizing the potential that had been obvious during the dark days under Mike Nolan and Mike Singletary.
Yet the 49ers have still yet to secure that coveted sixth Super Bowl title, and Harbaugh's men will need to overcome a number of significant obstacles if they are to accomplish that goal in 2014.
Indeed, San Francisco faces a difficult schedule and will have to deal with the threat posed by its rivals in an NFC West division that is widely considered to be the best in the NFL.
In addition, the Niners might be without one of the key players in last season's run to the NFC title game for at least some of the campaign.
In ascending order, here are the five most difficult challenges San Francisco will need to overcome to finally achieve its dream of bringing the Vince Lombardi Trophy back to the Bay Area.
Note: Statistics courtesy of Pro Football Reference.
5. The Arizona Cardinals
The Arizona Cardinals were arguably the unluckiest team in the NFL last season.
New head coach Bruce Arians came in and transformed their fortunes in his first year in charge, guiding them to a 10-6 record after three consecutive non-winning seasons.
Arizona even managed to become the first team since December 2011 (when the 49ers won 19-17) to beat the Seattle Seahawks at CenturyLink Field.
And in most other years, that probably would have been enough to seal a playoff berth.
However, the Cardinals reside in a division that featured the best two teams in the NFC in 2013. They were forced to watch the postseason from home as the New Orleans Saints clinched a wild-card berth ahead of them.
San Francisco swept its season series with Arizona, earning a 32-20 win at Candlestick Park and a 23-20 overtime success in the final game of the regular season.
However, neither of those victories was comfortable, and the 49ers will have to face a team that is hungry to atone for last season's near-miss in 2014.
The Cardinals possess a defense that ranked sixth in the NFL last season, two talented big-bodied receivers in Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd and veteran quarterback Carson Palmer, who threw for more than 4,000 yards last season.
That combination deserves to be respected and should present the 49ers with a substantial challenge in the 2014 campaign.
4. A Nightmare Schedule
If the 49ers are to go deep into the playoffs again in 2014, they will have to successfully negotiate a very difficult schedule.
San Francisco has the fourth toughest schedule in the NFL next season, per ESPN, and will face opponents with a winning percentage of .563.
That is not as difficult as the schedule of cross-bay rival Oakland Raiders, who have the toughest in the league, but the fact remains that the 49ers will face plenty of challenging games in 2014.
In addition to their six divisional encounters, San Francisco will take on all of the AFC West and NFC East teams plus the New Orleans Saints and the Chicago Bears.
This slate of fixtures promises to throw up interesting matchups, including road games against Oakland, historical rival Dallas Cowboys and a Denver Broncos team that is fresh off a Super Bowl defeat.
The good news is that the 49ers live for these types of contests, which they have demonstrated time and again in the last three seasons.
The 49ers have yet to face the AFC West teams during Harbaugh's tenure, but of the nine other teams on the schedule, they have beaten all but one since the former Stanford coach took charge.
Dallas is the only side on that list that Harbaugh has failed to beat, as the Cowboys emerged triumphant in an enthralling 27-24 overtime win at Candlestick Park in 2011.
It promises to be a testing year for Harbaugh and his team against an array of high-quality opponents, but if San Francisco can replicate its performances in big games over the last three campaigns, then it should be able to secure some impressive wins and reach the postseason.
3. NaVorro Bowman's Injury
Aside from Anquan Boldin, NaVorro Bowman was arguably the 49ers' best player in 2013.
That is what made his devastating knee injury in the NFC Championship Game loss to the Seattle Seahawks all the more costly.
He suffered a torn ACL and MCL in his left knee in the 23-17 defeat and faces a long road to recovery.
The former Penn State man has undergone surgery to repair the damage, but speaking at the recent NFL Scouting Combine, Coach Harbaugh was less than positive about the timescale for his return, per Bill Williamson of ESPN.com:
I wouldn't count him out of anything. Realistically, halfway through the season, something like that would be more realistic. But I never underestimate NaVorro Bowman. He's a supreme athlete, a world-class athlete among world-class athletes -- the way he moves, his strength, his powers of healing.
A prospective midseason return would leave the 49ers with a big hole to fill on the defensive side of the ball.
It will be hard to fill the void left by Bowman, who led the 49ers in almost every defensive category last season.
Backup Michael Wilhoite performed admirably when filling in for Patrick Willis in two games in 2013, and he could split time with safety-turned-linebacker Nick Moody as the 49ers aim to replace Bowman.
Per 49ers.com, general manager Trent Baalke has hinted at this prospect, although he also suggested that San Francisco could "infuse a little more competition into that position."
Whoever replaces Bowman, he is unlikely to be of the same caliber. With other more pressing needs in the NFL draft, the 49ers may have to deal with a drop-off in performance at the weak-side linebacker spot.
2. Last Season's Offensive Struggles
Colin Kaepernick's introduction as starting quarterback in the middle of the 2012 season sparked an offensive explosion from the 49ers.
However, his comparative failure to spark the offense in 2013 was a constant issue last season.
The 49ers ranked a disappointing 24th in total offense in the regular season. The dual threat of Kaepernick was contained by opposing defenses for much of the campaign.
Frank Gore kept the running game going with another effective 1,000-yard season, but if not for wide receiver Anquan Boldin and tight end Vernon Davis, the passing attack would have been virtually nonexistent.
Kaepernick did improve down the stretch thanks in part to Michael Crabtree's return from an Achilles injury suffered last May.
Still, with the NFC West rivals all possessing imposing defenses, the 49ers will need to shake off the disappointment of last season's offensive performance if they are to regain the division title that was surrendered to the Seahawks in 2013.
The 49ers made a good start to remedying the problems within their passing attack by re-signing Boldin to a two-year contract, per 49ers.com.
And with Crabtree now healthy, Kaepernick has three receiving targets he can trust.
Meanwhile, the team is hopeful that Marcus Lattimore, who missed all of his rookie year with an injury, can bolster the ground game.
The offense could still be improved by the addition of a speedy deep threat and a big-bodied red-zone target. With 11 selections in the draft, San Francisco has the ammunition to transform its passing attack into the one of the best in football.
1. The Seattle Seahawks
San Francisco may need to improve its offense and overcome a significant injury and a difficult schedule, but the biggest obstacle in the way of a potential sixth Super Bowl title is the current champion Seattle Seahawks.
With the dynamic and mobile Russell Wilson at quarterback, a star running back in Marshawn Lynch and a nasty defense that ranked first in 2013, the Seahawks have the ability to dominate the NFC for years to come.
The 49ers will have to ensure the Seahawks' desire to become a dynasty does not turn into a reality.
In order to do that, they will likely need to end their three-game winless streak at CenturyLink Field.
Seattle has been dominant in front of its vociferous home fans, but the 49ers can take heart from the performances both they and the Arizona Cardinals produced in their most recent trips to the Pacific Northwest.
Arizona's win at Seattle finally dispelled the belief that nobody could beat Pete Carroll's men at home, and although the 49ers came up short in the NFC title game, their effort should give them plenty of belief going forward.
Kaepernick, despite turning the ball over three times in the fourth quarter, showed that he can handle the noise levels at CenturyLink. He will look to take the next step and beat Seattle in its backyard in 2014.
The Seahawks may have the bragging rights for now, but the 49ers are not about to give up on their quest for a Lombardi Trophy.
Expect this burgeoning rivalry to intensify in 2014.