Since being installed as head coach, Jim Harbaugh has led the 49ers to three straight playoff berths, including two trips to the NFC Championship game and one to the Super Bowl. Though they have fallen short of football’s ultimate prize, they have not disappointed — in terms of competitive value, at least.
Each year, the team is poised to finally reclaim the Lombardi Trophy, but each year, some circumstance keeps the title just out of reach. Sometimes these circumstances are self-induced mistakes, sometimes they are lapses in officiating, and sometimes they are the result of being thwarted by greatness. No matter the case, each team had its own unique strengths and weaknesses. Parsing though these, we’ve ranked the three teams of the Harbaugh Era to determine which was the most dominant.
The 2011 New York Giants
After a disappointing season, in which they finished 9-7, the Giants would rally to a Super Bowl victory as part of a six-game winning streak. Impressively, in the postseason, the Giants claimed road victories against the Atlanta Falcons, Green Bay Packers, and San Francisco 49ers, teams that had a combined record of 38-10 in the regular season.
Perhaps most impressive was the Giants’ ability to overcome the vaunted San Francisco 49ers defense, which had surrendered a mere 14.3 points per game. Despite a dearth of talent, the New York Giants, lead by the stoic Eli Manning, put up 20 points while holding their opponent to only 17 — the 49ers’ third lowest total of the season. The 20 points scored by the Giants was the fifth highest total the 49ers defense had allowed all season.
In the end, the NFC Championship game was one of legend and one that cemented Eli Manning’s status as a legendary quarterback. The Giants would go one to easily beat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
The 2012 Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens were a team of destiny in 2012, backsliding into the playoffs only to make an unprecedented run. Perhaps vaulted into contention by an improbable conversion of a 4th-and-29, the fourth-seeded Ravens flew by the Indianapolis Colts, Denver Broncos, New England Patriots and the San Francisco 49ers on the arm of Joe Flacco.
Though their playoff run was punctuated by Flacco’s uncanny ability to throw the ball downfield, the greatest moment might have come in Super Bowl XLVII on 4th-and-5 via the Ravens’ defense. With the game on the line, cornerback Jimmy Smith perfectly defensed a Colin Kaepernick pass to Michael Crabtree. This play and the cornerback responsible for it will certainly be written into the annals of NFL history.
Following the season, Flacco was justly rewarded for his performance, which will no doubt be immortalized by a bust in Canton. Unfortunately, however, the Ravens were forced to dismantle the team, in part due to the demands of Flacco. But that season’s magic was truly something to behold.
The 2013 Seattle Seahawks
Perhaps the greatest defense you will witness in your lifetime, the 2013 Seattle Seahawks steamrolled into the playoffs in historic fashion. After stifling the high-powered attack of the New Orleans Saints, the Seahawks suffocated the 49ers, forcing Colin Kaepernick into one mistake after another. Then, in Super Bowl XLVIII, the Seahawks held the Denver Broncos record-setting offense to just 307 yards (27 of which came on the ground).
Through the entire postseason, it was as though the Seahawks had a competitive edge, as though they were more focused, stronger, faster, and quicker than their opponents. Undoubtedly, this came as a result of tireless, hard work — work that paid off in immortality.