The San Francisco 49ers led the NFC Championship Game by a touchdown more than midway through the third quarter before the division rival Seattle Seahawks scored 13 straight points to reach, and eventually win, the Super Bowl.
What the 49ers and Seahawks both showed is the old-school way of winning games still works, especially in the playoffs. Neither NFC West squad featured a high-powered passing attack, but both could run the ball and played outstanding defense.
It's an approach that makes the rivalry one of the best in football right now and also ensures both San Francisco and Seattle should be strong contenders once again in 2014. For the 49ers, the task is finding a way to come out on top in order to get back to the season's final game.
Which team should be next season's Super Bowl favorite?
They didn't go crazy during the height of the free-agency period. They re-signed Anquan Boldin and added Antoine Bethea to replace Donte Whitner, but for the most part they will enter the new campaign with the same key pieces from last season.
Perhaps the biggest key is getting Colin Kaepernick to take the next step as a passer. With a reliable running game, stout defense and the dual-threat quarterback making plays with his legs, the foundation for continued to success is in place.
The 49ers would be even more dangerous if Kaepernick improves even marginally as a pure passer. He completed just 58.4 percent of his throws last season, ranking 31st in the league. Better efficiency in that area would lead to more converted third downs and a better overall offense.
Now, with the release of the regular-season schedule, the 49ers know the path they will have to navigate in order to reach the playoffs. Let's check out the complete slate of games, followed by some analysis and a look at the key matchups on tap (via NFL.com):
|1||September 7||at Dallas||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|2||September 14||vs. Chicago||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|3||September 21||at Arizona||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|4||September 28||vs. Philadelphia||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|5||October 5||vs. Kansas City||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|6||October 13||at St. Louis||8:30 p.m.||ESPN|
|7||October 19||at Denver||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|9||November 2||vs. St. Louis||4:05 p.m.||Fox|
|10||November 9||at New Orleans||1:00 p.m||Fox|
|11||November 16||at New York Giants||1:00 p.m||Fox|
|12||November 23||vs. Redskins||4:25 p.m.||CBS|
|13||November 27||vs. Seattle||8:30 p.m.||NBC|
|14||December 7||at Oakland||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|15||December 14||at Seattle||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
|16||December 20||vs. San Diego||4:30 p.m.||CBS/NFL N|
|17||December 28||vs. Arizona||4:25 p.m.||Fox|
Being in the NFC West, it's no surprise the schedule looks difficult at the outset for the 49ers. The division featured three teams with at least 10 wins last season and the fourth, the St. Louis Rams, won seven and should improve with two picks in the top 13 in Round 1 of the draft.
The schedule ranks in a tie for fourth with the San Diego Chargers for overall difficulty based on last season's records, as noted by ESPN. The only teams with tougher schedules on paper are the Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos and Rams.
Furthermore, the thing that really stands out is the lack of "gimme" games. While there's no such thing as an absolute lock in the NFL, there are certain games with a very high probability of success, most notably against weaker teams at home.
The 49ers simply don't have many of those on the schedule. The Oakland Raiders would seemingly be the easiest matchup, but even that contest is on the road in what should be a raucous Bay Area crowd. So San Francisco won't be able to afford any lulls or it will be very easy to fall into a losing streak.
A more optimistic outlook would note the 49ers will still be a favorite in a majority of their games. That said, they will definitely have to fight and claw to earn a playoff berth this season, barring some unexpectedly poor seasons from teams they are set to play.
The schedule release probably has people thinking more about the new season. There's still plenty of offseason work to go before that point, though. Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times recently passed along the team's key upcoming offseason dates:
#49ers offseason schedule: OTA slated for May 27-29; June 2, 3 and 5; June 9, 10, 12 and 13; mandatory mini camp runs from June 17-19.— Steve Corkran (@CorkOnTheNFL) April 3, 2014
Once those end, the focus will shift to training camp and then finally the games that count.
The eyes of the NFL will be on the two games against the Seahawks, of course. Those games are crucial when it comes to winning the division and potentially earning home-field advantage throughout the NFC portion of the playoffs.
Seattle's star corner Richard Sherman made an interesting comment after blowing out the Broncos in the Super Bowl. He told Robert Klemko of TheMMQB.com that San Francisco, not Denver, was the second-best team in football last season:
"The NFC Championship was the Super Bowl. The 49ers were the second-best team in the NFL."
It shows that while the two sides are bitter rivals on the field, they respect each other. And while Denver would probably argue the point being made, it's certainly not an outrageous statement and it could very well ring true again next season.
How will the 49ers fare in the regular season?
Aside from those two games, as well as the other divisional battles, the other pivotal matchups are likely to be the remaining home games.
Given the difficult nature of San Francisco's schedule, taking care of business at home against other NFC foes like the Washington Redskins, Philadelphia Eagles and Chicago Bears is key. Just in case things don't go well on the road, they'll still have wins over other NFC playoff contenders.
All told, getting off to a strong start would really take a lot of pressure off the 49ers. The last thing they want is to head into the final quarter of the season in a must-win situations with no margin for error because the schedule, at least as it appears right now, is just too tough.
If the 49ers do put together another 13- or 12-win season against that schedule it would be highly impressive. They are certainly capable based on the talent on the roster, but after two deep playoff runs freshness could be a factor down the stretch.