The San Francisco 49ers are young, talented and a trendy pick to return to next year's Super Bowl -- except there are a couple of things working against them, and they're significant enough to keep them from reaching the Super Bowl XLVIII or, worse, the playoffs.
First, there's the history of Super Bowl losers. It's not good. In fact, it's downright ugly. The last team to return to the Super Bowl after losing it the year before was the 1993 Buffalo Bills -- and they made it back three consecutive years.
Since then, however, the resume of Super Bowl losers is deplorable. Of the last 14, only one -- the 2012 New England Patriots -- reached the conference championship game while seven -- or half the field -- failed to make the playoffs, period.
The combined record of the last 14 Super Bowl losers is a not-so-gaudy 123-101, and their combined playoff record is worse. Try 4-7.
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Now let's go all the way back to 1994, the first year the Bills failed to reach the playoffs. Eight of the last 19 Super Bowl losers didn't qualify for the postseason, none won more than one playoff game and only five won their divisions.
That tells you one thing, and what it tells you is that history is against a 49ers repeat.
Granted, the last four Super Bowl losers made it to January, but their combined playoff record was 2-4, with the 2009 Arizona Cardinals and 2012 Patriots the only ones to break through.
But there's something else conspiring against the 49ers, and it's the division in which they play. In one season, the NFC West went from a 99-pound weakling to one the league's heavyweights, with two of its clubs among the NFC's last four playoff teams. One was San Francisco. The other was Seattle. And before you pencil in the 49ers for a division three-peat, consider this: By the end of the regular season, it was Seattle, not San Francisco, that was best in the NFC West.
Yeah, I know. The Seahawks didn't get past Atlanta in the playoffs, and San Francisco did. But I also know the Seahawks demolished their last five regular-season opponents by an average margin of 26.6 points per game, including a 49ers team they torched 42-13 in Seattle -- San Francisco's worst loss under Jim Harbaugh.
If anybody was more relieved than Atlanta's Matt Ryan about the Falcons' last-second defeat of Seattle it was the 49ers. I think they knew what you and I did -- namely, that Seattle was a more formidable opponent than the Falcons, no matter where the game was played.
Well, the Seahawks aren't going away. Like San Francisco, they're a young team. Like San Francisco, they have a promising young quarterback. Like San Francisco, they have a punishing running game and solid offensive line. And, like San Francisco, they can beat you with a physical and aggressive defense. Unlike San Francisco, however, the Seahawks aren't coming off a Super Bowl defeat ... and that's to their advantage.
But Seattle isn't the only concern within the division. Let's not forget about St. Louis. They're the one division opponent that the 49ers couldn't beat. First, the Rams tied them in San Francisco; then, they beat them at home. In fact, St. Louis was 4-0-1 in the division until a season-ending 20-13 loss to Seattle where surprised onlookers talked about how tough, resilient and competitive the Rams were.
Welcome to Jeff Fisher's world.
St. Louis has a core of young talent, too, with a quarterback who should be better than he has shown. All he needs is more weapons and, guaranteed, the Rams find them with what they gain from the RG3 deal -- namely, Washington's first-round picks this year and next.
I guess what I'm saying is that nothing is a certainty in a division in which three teams could be poised to go to the playoffs. That will make it hard on San Francisco, and forget about what the 49ers do with Alex Smith. Tell me what they do about their competition within the division or that Super Bowl jinx.
They have the players to return to the NFL championship game, but history and their rivals might be obstacles too great to overcome.