Coming off an agonizing NFC Championship loss, the 49ers felt they were only a few minor tweaks away from getting to the Super Bowl and erasing the bitter taste of 2011. They aimed to shore up their offense by (unsuccessfully) going after Peyton Manning which resulted in a messy situation with off-contract starter Alex Smith who himself was flirting with Miami. All was resolved and the 49ers brought their quarterback at a slightly higher price than initially hoped. Their skill positions were addressed in free agency and the draft with receivers Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and A.J. Jenkins coming to the team in free agency and the draft respectively. While neither of those acquisitions set the world on fire in the red and gold, Jenkins failed to see the field for most of the season, they all provided extra depth and decent contributions when they needed to. Second round pick LaMichael James came on during the season as a kick returner and spot duty running back providing a home run threat that can change momentum on a single play. The 49ers thought they had made enough improvements to get their team over the line but only time would tell if they would be enough.
After a – preseason, the 49ers travelled to Green Bay on the opening weekend for an early bout between NFC heavyweights. Randy Moss made his presence felt with a touchdown catch in the 49ers 30-22 victory in Lambeau Field. Their bright start hit the skids in week three against the Minnesota Vikings where they were upset and the team was reminded about the limitations of their offense with Alex Smith under center. They responded perfectly to the loss with a 32-0 thumping of the Jets and a 45-3 win over Buffalo. Their NFC Championship rematch with the Giants turned into a nightmare for them losing 26-3 as Alex Smith had the worst game of the season throwing three interceptions. A seven point win over Seattle on Thursday Night Football before a convincing win over Arizona on Monday Night sent them into their bye at 6-2 and in relatively good shape in terms of a playoff berth.
A home game against St Louis after the bye changed the course of the 49ers season mostly for the better, despite the uncertainty in the immediate aftermath of the game. Alex Smith left the game with a concussion thrusting second year backup Colin Kaepernick into the spotlight as the 49ers managed to survive the scrappy Rams and get away with a tie. The big play potential of Kaepernick revitalized the offense and gave them an entirely new dimension thanks to his running ability. Kaepernick’s perfromances in wins over the Bears and Saints convinced the coaching staff that he was worth sticking with for the remainder of the season as the team’s quarterback despite Smith’s return to health. An overtime loss to the Rams and a win over the Dolphins sent them into New England for the game of the year at 9-3-1 and in contention for a first round bye.
A win over the Patriots at Gillette Stadium would send a real message to the rest of the league about their Super Bowl credentials. After jumping out to a dominating 31-3 lead, the Patriots fought back to tie the game before San Francisco showed some remarkable resiliency to regain the lead and hold off New England. A demoralizing loss in Seattle the next week sent their playoff hopes spiraling before a lucky break in the final week lead to the 49ers getting the second overall seed and a first round bye.
That first round bye proved to be incredibly advantageous as the 49ers were hosting the divisional round match against the Packers instead of making a return trip to Lambeau Field. That Saturday night saw any doubt about coach Harbaugh’s decision to stick with Kaepernick immediately removed. It turned into a coming out party for the young 49ers star as he broke Michael Vick’s rushing record in a playoff game with 181 yards and two scores to complement his 2 scoring passes. All of this came after an interception return for a touchdown on his first drive and it lead to a 49ers victory and a trip to Atlanta for the NFC Championship. Down 17-0 in the second quarter, it looked like that would be the end of San Francisco’s season before a rally lead to the game being competitive again going into the fourth quarter. A Frank Gore touchdown followed by a couple of defensive stands gave the 49ers a victory and a trip to the Super Bowl to erase the memories of their heartbreaking loss last season.