There aren't many downsides to a 13-3 regular season record. It's not easy to win in the regular season, and earning a first round bye in the playoffs gives teams a huge advantage on their road to the Super Bowl. Unfortunately, the 49ers could not deliver in the NFC Championship game, so as the rest of the world prepares for Super Bowl 46, 49ers fans are making their sudden, jolting return through earth’s atmosphere.
Seasons like the one that the 49ers just had, however, are not all good. Winning in the NFL affects your future negatively, and the first thing affected is draft order. After a nearly 10 year run in which the 49ers enjoyed top-15 picking rights, San Francisco will be drafting first at the 30th overall pick. There’s really no such thing as poor first round talent (The Saints picked up Mark Ingram with the 28th overall pick last year), but it certainly won't have them in the running for a player like Justin Blackmon or Trent Richardson. Trent Baalke is going to have to do some clever maneuvering in this draft, because the 49ers are in desperate need of some offensive help.
The second, more important downside to winning is that first place teams get first place schedules. 49ers fans will be hungry to see their team return to the apex of the National Football League and they certainly have the talent (and coaching) to do it. The road back to that peak, however, will not be as smooth as it was in 2011.
That's not to say that the 49ers had it easy this season. Winning on the road in the NFL is a task, and to go east as many times as the 49ers did and only drop one game is just short of miraculous. On the other hand, the east coast teams they faced included the Redskins, Bengals and Eagles, to name a few. Not exactly top tier talent.
The 2012-2013 season, while it may present some opportunities for prime time appearances, will also offer the opportunity for failure. The 49ers will host the Cardinals, Seahawks, Rams, Bears, Lions, Giants, Bills and Dolphins. The first three are your usual scrappy intradivision match-ups. The two games that stick out will be rematches against the Giants and Lions, both of whom I've built up a nice bit of hatred for.
The road schedule is even more daunting. After the three division match-ups, the 49ers will travel to Green Bay, Minnesota, New Orleans, New England and New York to face the Jets. Lord only knows what shape Gang Green and the Vikes will be in next year, but running the table at Lambeau, Gillette Stadium and the Super Dome seems rather unlikely.
I'm just trying to prepare myself, and people like me, for the almost certain letdown that the 49ers will have next year. Playoffs should now be an expectation, but 13-3 with a first round playoff bye should not be. No one said it would be easy to win in the National Football League, and for the 2012 49ers it won’t be, but I expect that Harbaugh will have them moving forward well prepared for the task.
Photo Credit: Chicago Tribune