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.
If the 49ers lose to the Packers, people will wonder if he has hit his peak, if he's losing his touch, if he's over-hyped.
So, the stakes are much higher in January 2013 than they were in January 2012. And Harbaugh helped make it that way — mostly by changing quarterbacks and creating a last-minute kicking competition.
When Harbaugh benched Alex Smith for Colin Kaepernick, most people gave Harbaugh the benefit of the doubt even if they didn't agree with the move.
Because he's the Quarterback Whisperer of the NFL — the coach who murmurs into the quarterback's ear until the last possible second. He turned Alex Smith into a very good quarterback, something many observers thought impossible. Harbaugh already had developed Andrew Luck at Stanford. And Harbaugh himself was an NFL quarterback.
If he said Kaepernick was the guy, that was good enough for most 49ers fans.
But if the 49ers lose and Kaepernick does not play well, Harbaugh loses the benefit of the doubt and perhaps his reputation as the current quarterback guru in the NFL. People will second-guess his benching of Smith and the timing of it. They will second-guess Harbaugh in the offseason, maybe the rest of his life. His boldest move as an NFL head coach will be perceived as a reckless mistake, benching an established quarterback for a second-year player who was a virtual rookie in terms of experience.