SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) - The San Francisco 49ers took months last year to get over the sting of a three-point Super Bowl loss to Baltimore.
It won't be much different as they head into the offseason now, again left to ponder how close they were to competing for another championship. Except this time, they have the added frustration of being forced to watch the rival Seattle Seahawks head to the Super Bowl next week instead.
Three years under coach Jim Harbaugh, three near misses. Yet this is exactly where the franchise wants to be: in the mix for a Super Bowl each year.
"I don't think this is heartbreaking," safety Donte Whitner said. "I played in Buffalo, N.Y., for five years. We're playing in the cold, and we're playing for nothing at the end of the year. Here we're playing for championships, each and every year. We're playing a lot of big games, lot of nationally televised games that we win."
What hurt perhaps more than packing up two weeks prematurely was seeing All-Pro linebacker NaVorro Bowman go down with a serious knee injury during Sunday's 23-17 NFC championship loss at Seattle.
Everybody is hopeful of Bowman returning for the 2014 season.
"I absolutely believe he can. I really do," Harbaugh said Tuesday. "He's got healing ahead, he's got grueling rehab ahead. That is not the way that you would've foreseen his offseason to be after coming off what many have talked about, and deservedly so, a Defensive Player of the Year-type of performance. Great year by NaVorro. But facts are stubborn things. That's what lies ahead of him."
And, regardless of what changes take place with the roster, Harbaugh was ready to get back to work building for another playoff run a year from now.
Getting back to the NFL's big stage this year seemed like a daunting task when the season began without top 2012 wide receiver Michael Crabtree and again once star pass rusher Aldon Smith checked into rehab for substance abuse in September and missed five weeks.
At 14-5, the 49ers had their two-year reign as division champions end but still overachieved in the minds of many critics who figured a tougher schedule - not to mention challenge as a Super Bowl team - would be too much for this group.
Now, many of the Niners are curious what the team might look like come minicamps and other offseason activities - and how the roster will shape up as the team moves into the new $1.2 billion Levi's Stadium next season hoping to regain control in the NFC West in what should be another year of great matchups with Seattle.
"It's tough to keep teams together. You have windows of opportunities with certain players, so hopefully there are ways to work around that and keep guys here, but until we hear anything, you really don't know," said center Jonathan Goodwin, who will ponder retirement.
Wideout Anquan Boldin, Whitner and place kicker Phil Dawson are unrestricted free agents, along with Goodwin, cornerback Eric Wright and receiver Mario Manningham.
That means general manager Trent Baalke and Harbaugh have lots to ponder in the next two months ahead of the NFL's March free agency period.
"Today, it's Tuesday, you're back to work, you find other ways to compete," Harbaugh said. "It's not as enjoyable as it was a week ago. You're not still playing, you're not still competing on the field and getting ready for practice today and tomorrow. You can find other ways to compete. That's definitely one of the ways, fight to keep our players, fight for our players not to be taken away from us. It will be a competitive fight."
CEO Jed York recently expressed he is eager to sit down with Harbaugh to discuss the future. The coach, the first in modern NFL history to lead his team to the NFC championship in each of his first three seasons, has two years remaining on a $25 million, five-year contract signed when he joined the franchise in January 2011.
Whether he expects to meet with York about a new deal, Harbaugh wouldn't say.
"I don't ever talk about contracts in public," he said. "If that principle changes, I'll let you know."
In addition to Bowman's injury and a broken left ankle suffered by left guard Mike Iupati, running back Frank Gore broke his right ring finger Sunday and left tackle Joe Staley played with a dislocated thumb.
"The game itself was one of the best games I've ever witnessed as a coach or a player because the players played their (tails) off," Harbaugh said. "It was a great year of football with a capital 'G.'"
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