SANTA CLARA — In another season of coming oh so close, here is a look at some of the best and worst moments for the San Francisco 49ers during a year that ended with a loss in the NFC championship game to the archrival Seattle Seahawks on Sunday that left them at 14-5:
Best Game: The 49ers proved they could beat NFC power Seattle in a 19-17 home victory on Dec. 8 after a lopsided loss in Week 2. The victory denied the Seahawks a chance to clinch the NFC West at Candlestick Park. Frank Gore’s game-saving 51-yard run set up a 22-yard field goal by Phil Dawson with 26 seconds remaining.
Worst Game: A week after opening the season by beating Green Bay, the 49ers went to Seattle and were embarrassed 29-3 — a victory that helped pave the way for the Seahawks’ division title and top seed, then Super Bowl berth.
Best Play: NaVorro Bowman’s 89-yard interception return with 1:10 remaining sealed a 34-24 win against Atlanta on Dec. 23 that clinched a playoff spot and made sure the 49ers were a winner in the final game at Candlestick Park.
Worst Play: Again, Bowman, but this time for a devastating left knee injury sustained by the All-Pro linebacker in the 23-17 loss at Seattle in the NFC championship game. It was a fumble recovery awarded to the Seahawks on a controversial call, and Bowman’s extended left leg bent awkwardly when teammate Eric Reid tackled Jermaine Kearse after he was stripped of the ball by Bowman.
Biggest Surprise: Michael Crabtree returned — and to his talented old self to defy even coach Jim Harbaugh’s expectations — for the final five regular-season games after the Niners’ top 2012 wideout recovered from May surgery for a torn right Achilles tendon.
Biggest Disappointment: Mario Manningham’s return from left knee surgery never panned out as he continued to have lingering problems with it. He missed the first eight games of the season while still recovering from an ACL tear, then re-injured his knee Dec. 15 at Tampa Bay.
What’s Next: Several big names could go elsewhere in free agency, including safety Donte Whitner, wide receiver Anquan Boldin and place kicker Phil Dawson, though all three have expressed interest in returning. Coach Jim Harbaugh has said “pay the man” when it comes to bringing back Dawson, and expressed Tuesday, “I’m resigned that I’m going to fight to keep our players.” Speaking of money, Harbaugh very well could land himself a new deal. He just completed Year 3 of a $25 million, five-year contract and CEO Jed York is interested in having a sit down to discuss an extension after three straight years of reaching the NFC championship, and the Super Bowl last season. “I don’t ever talk about contracts in public,” Harbaugh said. “If that principle changes, I’ll let you know.”