49ers prepare to take one more step: to Super Bowl

The sting of a Super Bowl near miss stuck with linebacker Parys

Haralson for months.

He thought about it as he worked out in the offseason and

prepared for a new year that brings even greater pressures. And

Haralson is hardly the only one on the San Francisco 49ers still

bothered by just how close they came to reaching the NFL’s showcase

event in Jim Harbaugh’s first season as coach: three points, in

overtime, a loss on their own field to the eventual champion New

York Giants.

”I think we feel like we came up short last year,” Haralson


The 2012 team is built not only to return to the postseason this

time but reach the Super Bowl. General manager Trent Baalke brought

back all 11 defensive starters for one of the league’s best units

of last year – almost unheard of in this age of free agency. Baalke

brought in Randy Moss after a year out of football along with

former Giant Mario Manningham to upgrade a receiving corps that

failed to come through in the NFC title game, and added another

Super Bowl champion in Brandon Jacobs to boost the depth at running

back behind three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore.

These Niners are chasing the championship this year with

everything they’ve got, a new stadium being constructed all around

them to serve as motivation of bigger things still to come.

”The way it works here, we have higher expectations and have

our own expectations,” quarterback Alex Smith said. ”I don’t

think we pay much attention, I really don’t, to what else is going

on. To what people, what they’re guessing, what they think we’re

going to finish. We all know what they thought we were going to

finish last year and how right they were about that. So, it’s no

different this year. It’s all about what we expect and we have to

go out there and we have to do it.”

The 49ers re-signed Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who

is coming off the best showing in his seven NFL seasons, for three

more years in March.

The 28-year-old Smith threw for 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns

with only five interceptions as San Francisco went 13-3 to win its

first division title since 2002.

Harbaugh can already tell Smith is clicking with Moss and


Five times Smith rallied his team from behind, including four of

those away from Candlestick Park to help the Niners go 6-2 on the

road. His 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds

remaining in the NFC division playoffs lifted the 49ers to a 36-32

victory against Drew Brees and the Saints.

In late May, Harbaugh addressed what he called an ”erroneous

perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning” even though

the coach and others flew to North Carolina to work out the 11-time

Pro Bowl quarterback.

Manning wound up in Denver, while Smith wound up with a new deal

worth up to $33 million.

The 49ers pulled off a remarkable resurgence last year without

even having an offseason together because of the lockout. San

Francisco snapped an eight-year drought without a winning season or

playoff berth.

”We feel, obviously, much further along than we were last

year,” left tackle Joe Staley said. ”Last year we were really

just diving into the playbook and trying to wrap our head around

the concepts.”

Yet, even Harbaugh himself won’t say they can top the 2011 win

total with a daunting schedule that begins Sept. 9 on the road at

Green Bay.

Harbaugh hasn’t changed much in his second go-round, still

sporting his signature look of black fleece pullover sweatshirt and

khaki pants. Day in, day out. That’s Harbaugh.

And he’s always ready to praise his players. There will

certainly be plenty more chants of ”Who’s got it better than us?


”The neat thing about these guys, these professional football

players, and always felt this way as a player as well, is that

they’re not the ordinary people that are out there walking

around,” Harbaugh said when asked about players returning from

injury. ”They are different. They’re some of the world’s most

perfectly formed men.”

The Niners’ opportunistic defense anchored by All-Pro Patrick

Willis, Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith would like to carry

on a special thing it started last season, when San Francisco

ranked No. 1 at stopping the run.

”We played well as a defense and as a team, and we were only in

the system for one year. It means a lot that they brought back all

of those guys,” Haralson said. ”It gives us another year to work

together, play together. It’s not like everybody’s out there

learning something new.”

San Francisco became the first team in NFL history not to give

up a rushing touchdown through the first 14 games. The 49ers also

went 36 straight without allowing a 100-yard runner.

Both streaks were snapped by Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch in San

Francisco’s Dec. 24 win at Seattle.

They allowed only three touchdowns rushing total, and the Niners

had 38 takeaways to 10 turnovers for a plus-28 turnover

differential. That matched the second-best mark in the NFL since


The 49ers hope they still have some momentum from all those

milestones heading into a new year.

”That’s always the plan,” Haralson said. ”The main goal is to

win games. It’s one of those things that burns when you come that


Online: http://bigstory.ap.org/NFL-Pro32 and