This week the 49ers are in the same position they were in a year ago — No. 2 seed, first-round bye, home game. It’s a great situation to be in, but the stakes are different.
Last year, there were no stakes. The 49ers were coming off a six-win season, Jim Harbaugh was in his rookie season as the head coach, and Alex Smith was still the quarterback.
The 49ers were like a craps player on a heater, rolling sevens 50 times in a row. They rode a magical wave. When it ended, no one faulted them for losing. Just imagine how much better they’ll be next season, people reasoned.
That’s where the stakes come in.
The 49ers have to do better this postseason than they did last postseason to prove they are making progress and to take advantage of aging stars like Justin Smith and Frank Gore, who may never be this good again.
These are the stakes pure and simple: The 49ers have to advance to the Super Bowl.
Harbaugh understands the stakes. That’s why he pushed his chips all in halfway through the season by benching Alex Smith and starting Colin Kaepernick. Kaepernick gives the 49ers a better chance to go to the Super Bowl and meet increased expectations. That’s what Harbaugh hopes.
The 49ers can’t go to the Super Bowl without first beating the Packers on Saturday. If the 49ers beat the Packers, Harbaugh will have two playoff wins with two different quarterbacks over two recent Super Bowl champions (the Saints being the other one). That’s a stellar playoff resume for a young coach.
But if the 49ers lose to the Packers, Harbaugh will have thrown snake eyes for the first time in his brief head coaching career. He’ll have a losing record, 1-2, and that would overshadow his 24-7-1 regular-season record.
Harbaugh’s teams always have gotten better from one year to the next. That was true at the University of San Diego and that was true at Stanford. It’s part of his identity as a head coach — he’s the coach who’s always on the rise. He’s a budding star who won’t stop budding.