SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) The sting of a Super Bowl near miss stuck with linebacker Parys Haralson for months.
He thought about it as he worked out in the offseason and prepared for a new year that brings even greater pressures. And Haralson is hardly the only one on the San Francisco 49ers still bothered by just how close they came to reaching the NFL's showcase event in Jim Harbaugh's first season as coach: three points, in overtime, a loss on their own field to the eventual champion New York Giants.
"I think we feel like we came up short last year," Haralson said.
The 2012 team is built not only to return to the postseason this time but reach the Super Bowl. General manager Trent Baalke brought back all 11 defensive starters for one of the league's best units of last year almost unheard of in this age of free agency. Baalke brought in Randy Moss after a year out of football along with former Giant Mario Manningham to upgrade a receiving corps that failed to come through in the NFC title game, and added another Super Bowl champion in Brandon Jacobs to boost the depth at running back behind three-time Pro Bowler Frank Gore.
These Niners are chasing the championship this year with everything they've got, a new stadium being constructed all around them to serve as motivation of bigger things still to come.
"The way it works here, we have higher expectations and have our own expectations," quarterback Alex Smith said. "I don't think we pay much attention, I really don't, to what else is going on. To what people, what they're guessing, what they think we're going to finish. We all know what they thought we were going to finish last year and how right they were about that. So, it's no different this year. It's all about what we expect and we have to go out there and we have to do it."
The 49ers re-signed Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick who is coming off the best showing in his seven NFL seasons, for three more years in March.
The 28-year-old Smith threw for 3,150 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions as San Francisco went 13-3 to win its first division title since 2002.
Harbaugh can already tell Smith is clicking with Moss and Manningham.
Five times Smith rallied his team from behind, including four of those away from Candlestick Park to help the Niners go 6-2 on the road. His 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining in the NFC division playoffs lifted the 49ers to a 36-32 victory against Drew Brees and the Saints.
In late May, Harbaugh addressed what he called an "erroneous perception that we were flirting with Peyton Manning" even though the coach and others flew to North Carolina to work out the 11-time Pro Bowl quarterback.
Manning wound up in Denver, while Smith wound up with a new deal worth up to $33 million.
The 49ers pulled off a remarkable resurgence last year without even having an offseason together because of the lockout. San Francisco snapped an eight-year drought without a winning season or playoff berth.
"We feel, obviously, much further along than we were last year," left tackle Joe Staley said. "Last year we were really just diving into the playbook and trying to wrap our head around the concepts."
Yet, even Harbaugh himself won't say they can top the 2011 win total with a daunting schedule that begins Sept. 9 on the road at Green Bay.
Harbaugh hasn't changed much in his second go-round, still sporting his signature look of black fleece pullover sweatshirt and khaki pants. Day in, day out. That's Harbaugh.
And he's always ready to praise his players. There will certainly be plenty more chants of "Who's got it better than us? Nobody!"
"The neat thing about these guys, these professional football players, and always felt this way as a player as well, is that they're not the ordinary people that are out there walking around," Harbaugh said when asked about players returning from injury. "They are different. They're some of the world's most perfectly formed men."
The Niners' opportunistic defense anchored by All-Pro Patrick Willis, Justin Smith and linebacker Aldon Smith would like to carry on a special thing it started last season, when San Francisco ranked No. 1 at stopping the run.
"We played well as a defense and as a team, and we were only in the system for one year. It means a lot that they brought back all of those guys," Haralson said. "It gives us another year to work together, play together. It's not like everybody's out there learning something new."
San Francisco became the first team in NFL history not to give up a rushing touchdown through the first 14 games. The 49ers also went 36 straight without allowing a 100-yard runner.
Both streaks were snapped by Seahawks star Marshawn Lynch in San Francisco's Dec. 24 win at Seattle.
They allowed only three touchdowns rushing total, and the Niners had 38 takeaways to 10 turnovers for a plus-28 turnover differential. That matched the second-best mark in the NFL since 1941.
The 49ers hope they still have some momentum from all those milestones heading into a new year.
"That's always the plan," Haralson said. "The main goal is to win games. It's one of those things that burns when you come that close."