From Comcast SportsNetNEW ORLEANS (AP) -- Offensive linemen Alex Boone and Mike Iupati stood in one corner of a near-empty San Francisco locker room and pondered just how close they had come to winning the Super Bowl.It quickly began to sink in, beneath the Superdome on Sunday night as the Baltimore Ravens celebrated, that their season had ended short of the goal.One year, they almost reached the NFL's championship game. The next, they nearly won it."It just hurts, it hurts now," Iupati said. "There are no words to express how we feel right now. We've got to put it in the past now and we can't ever forget this moment. We've just got to go out there and next year is another year, and compete."The 49ers head into the offseason following a 34-31 Super Bowl loss knowing they were right there against the Ravens, and now move forward with the hope of keeping much of the team together and building to get back -- and this time win it all.One big question: What to do with backup quarterback Alex Smith?CEO Jed York said last week he would address Smith's situation soon. Smith would like to have the chance to start somewhere, and the 49ers realize that's a fair request."Last year losing in the NFC championship game, come back this year and you're in the Super Bowl, it feels the same way," running back Frank Gore said. "Any other team probably would have just laid down but we kept fighting. We just didn't get it done."Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will soon begin planning for the 2013 season -- not to mention the draft in April -- and determine whether they can find a team for Smith.The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick lost his starting job in November to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick, who nearly led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in the 10th start of his NFL career.A win would have put him right there in the 49ers' storied Super Bowl history aside Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, who led San Francisco's last championship after the 1994 season.The Niners lost for the first time in six Super Bowls, leaving Harbaugh to shake hands with Ravens coach and big brother, John, afterward as the loser in the first sibling-coached championship."We want to handle this with class and grace," Harbaugh said. "Had several opportunities in the game. Didn't play our best game."The 25-year-old Kaepernick, a strong-armed, mobile quarterback with loads of tattoos and a signature touchdown move -- pumping his right arm and kissing his biceps -- went 7-3 as a starter and gave great promise to a franchise that wants to make Super Bowls an annual thing again.Last season it was another three-point loss, 20-17 to the Giants in the NFC title game, that ended the 49ers' season."Knowing how hard it is to get here, it's not promised," defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said.Kaepernick finished 16 for 28 for 302 yards with three sacks and an interception for a 91.7 passer rating. The interception was the first by the 49ers in six Super Bowls and ended a streak at 169 passes without one.San Francisco nearly pulled off another improbable comeback, as it did in rallying from a 17-0 deficit to win 28-24 at Atlanta for the NFC championship."We let everybody know what type of guys we've got in our locker room," Gore said. "It's hard to break us, we're going to keep fighting. They just got it done today."The 49ers had three chances from the 5 with less than 2 minutes left, and Kaepernick threw three straight incomplete passes intended for Michael Crabtree, who got tangled up with cornerback Jimmy Smith on the final play but no holding was called -- though Harbaugh begged for a flag from the sideline, signaling a penalty at the officials.Kaepernick directed four second-half scoring drives, throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree and also running 15 yards for a TD. But the 49ers missed the 2-point conversion that would have tied the game with less than 10 minutes left."This is kind of tough, to get this far and let everything slip away through your hands," linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. "The funny thing about it is, within the next few months, we're going to start trying to get back to the same place that we're at right now."And this ball-hawking linebacking corps should be encouraged because the four starters are each signed through at least the 2015 season -- Aldon Smith's contract takes him three more seasons, Patrick Willis will be around through 2016, Brooks through '17 and NaVorro Bowman through 18 after signing a five-year contract extension in November worth 45.25 million, with 25.5 million in guaranteed money.Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 sacks in 2012 -- falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet he didn't have one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Justin Smith sidelined because of a partially torn left triceps.Rookie running back LaMichael James, a late-season surprise after hardly getting a look early in the year, is sure this team has another postseason run ahead -- if not as soon as next season.Thinking about the future might be easy for a rookie, yet the veterans know there are guys who go their entire career and never get this far."It's tough," Gore said. "When you're in the dance, you want to get it."
For all the flack that Matt Ryan got heading into this season, he’s been a damn good quarterback. Is his career on the same level as Tom Brady’s? Of course not, but this regular season saw him stand as Brady’s peer, making him an MVP favorite.
One of Ryan’s biggest challengers for that hardware is the same man who stands in the way of him winning his first Super Bowl. Though he missed the first four games of the season due to suspension, Brady finished second in the league in passing yards per game and threw just two picks in 12 games while tossing 28 touchdowns.
So Super Bowl LI will pin the quarterback with the best numbers overall (Ryan finished two touchdowns behind Aaron Rodgers for the league lead but threw for 516 more yards and had a higher completion percentage) against the quarterback with the best touchdown/interception ratio ever for a single season.
In other words, this is a Super Bowl that puts what one could argue are the season’s two best quarterbacks each other. That’s pretty rare.
Going back the last 25 years, there are four candidates for such meetings: Manning vs. Brees in Super Bowl XLIV, Favre and Elway in Super Bowl XXXII (this one is a stretch), Favre and Bledsoe in Super Bowl XXXI and Kelly and Rypien in Super Bowl XXVI..
Why haven’t the two best quarterbacks squared off in the Super Bowl more often? Because Brady and Peyton Manning played their entire careers in the same conference, silly. It’s taken other players entering their echelon to even set up such a scenario, and that’s why Brees’ Saints beating Manning’s Colts serves as the only example during Manning or Brady’s career.
The strong performances of those who dominated the regular season have often carried over into their Super Bowl meetings, but not always. Drew Bledsoe and Jim Kelly (both throwing two touchdowns and four picks in Super Bowl losses) are examples of the wheels falling off in the final game.
Here’s a breakdown of past occurrences. Note that all four of them saw the winning team score at least 30 points, something the Pats have done just once in Brady's four Super Bowl wins:
Super Bowl XLIV: Brees vs. Manning
Brees led NFL with 34 touchdowns in regular season; Manning finished tied for second with 33
Final score: Saints 31, Colts 17
Brees: 32/39, 288 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Manning: 31/45, 333 yards, 1 TD, 1 INT
Brees completed a postseason in which he had no turnovers and did so in a nearly exactly average game for him that season, as e averaged 292.5 yards, 2.26 touchdowns and less than one interception per game in the regular season. The two quarterbacks also combined for just one sack.
Super Bowl XXXII: Favre vs. Elway
Favre led NFL with 35 TDs in regular season, Elway finished second in TD/interception ratio
Final score: Broncos 31, Packers 24
Favre: 25/42, 256 yards, 3 TD, 1 INT, fumble lost
Elway: 12/22, 123 yards, 0 TD, 1 INT
Again, this is the forced one because Jeff George (3,917 passing yards, 29 touchdowns, nine interceptions) had the better regular season than Elway (3,635 passing yards, 27 touchdowns, 11 picks). Elway may have been the winning quarterback, but he didn’t have anything to do with the win. Terrell Davis carried the Broncos, playing through a migraine and rushing for 157 yards with three touchdowns en route to Super Bowl MVP honors.
Super Bowl XXXI: Favre vs. Bledsoe
Favre led NFL with 39 TDs, Bledsoe third with 27
Final Score: Packers 35, Patriots 21
Favre: 14/27, 246 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT
Bledsoe: 25/48, 253 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT
Both quarterbacks took five sacks in this game. For Bledsoe, it was the most he took all season. The game was the third four-pick performance of his NFL career.
Super Bowl XXVI: Kelly vs. Rypien
Kelly led NFL with 33 TDs, Rypien second with 28
Final score: Redskins 37, Bills 24
Rypien: 18/33, 292 yards, 2 TD, INT
Kelly: 28/58, 275 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT, fumble lost
Turns out five turnovers (and being sacked four times) is not a recipe for winning the Super Bowl. Kelly’s 58 passes thrown set a Super Bowl record.
Working for the Patriots makes you attractive to other teams. Many have left, but Thomas Dimitroff and Scott Pioli are finally showing that major success can be attained in the process.
Dimitroff and Pioli have built a team in Atlanta that will play for the franchise’s first Super Bowl title on Feb. 5. While many have been hired away from Bill Belichick's Patriots to lead other organizations, Dimitroff is the first of the defectors to get to the Super Bowl on his own. Adding an old friend in Pioli has played a part in that.
Dimitroff served as New England’s director of college scouting from 2003 through 2007 before becoming Atlanta’s general manager in 2008. He hired Pioli in 2014 as an assistant GM after the longtime Patriots director and vice president of player personnel had a messy stint as the Chiefs’ GM.
Executives and coaches (even Field Yates; yes, the fair-haired boy from the television) leaving the Patriots for better positions with other organizations has been common, but with the new positions have often come diminished success compared to New England.
Romeo Crennel, Eric Mangini, Bill O’Brien, Charlie Weis (in his brief return to the NFL in 2010) and Josh McDaniels make up the list of coordinators who have left winning with the Patriots to experience a dropoff without Brady and Belichick. John Robinson (Titans), Jason Licht (Buccaneers) and Bob Quinn (Lions) currently serve as GMs elsewhere, while former Pats secondary coach Joe Collier works with Dimitroff and Pioli as the Falcons’ director of pro personnel.
It’s only fitting that Dimitroff and Pioli will have to go through Belichick in order to secure a title on their own. Winning without Belichick has proven hard enough for his former colleagues; winning against him will be even harder.