"Mobile to Miami" was heard many times last season. It was a phrase — a motto, a goal — that encapsulated the 49ers' journey from hosting the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, as one of the worst teams of the 2018 season, to the punching a ticket to the Super Bowl in Miami the following year.
Unless you're the Patriots, getting back to the biggest game on the football calendar is no guarantee. It's almost as hard to repeat getting to the Super Bowl as it is winning it.
When looking at San Francisco’s roster, not much has changed. The 49ers still have their coach and quarterback at the helm and their defense is still filled with a lot of talent. But no season is exactly the same as the one before, it’s something that makes championship runs special yet, for most franchises, fleeting.
What could stand in the way of another run to the Super Bowl for San Francisco? There are a few factors, mainly some tough competition in the NFC.
New Orleans Saints
The Saints are the biggest threat to a 49ers’ NFC Championship repeat. New Orleans has one of the best rosters in the NFL; one of the best coaches in the league; one of the best quarterbacks ever; a complementary run game; a dynamic, take-over wide receiver; a lot of playoff experience and will likely play a chip on its shoulder, given how the past two seasons ended.
If Drew Brees can stay healthy, there's a good chance the Saints could have home-field advantage throughout the playoffs; selecting Cesar Ruiz in the first round ensured they have plenty of talent and depth along the offensive line to protect Brees. On the other side, New Orleans’ defense was good last season and adds a familiar face in Malcolm Jenkins at safety. The Saints also beefed up their pass rush by trading up to get Wisconsin linebacker Zack Baun in the 2020 NFL Draft.
New Orleans will get face San Francisco during the 2020 regular season, foreshadowing a potential playoff matchup.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
You'd be hard-pressed to find a team that improved their Super Bowl chances more than the Buccaneers did this offseason. They have the third-highest odds to win the Super Bowl, which would be hosted in their own city.
Tampa Bay is a true wildcard; no one knows how this new cast of characters will gel in their first season together. Tom Brady comes to town with not only Super Bowl experience but championship expectations. The Buccaneers’ offense is as stacked as any in the league with players like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cam Brate and now Tyler Johnson as passing weapons. Their defense was very young last season but started to come on strong in the last half of the year. Another year with Todd Bowles as the defensive coordinator could do wonders for a team far more experienced; Tampa Bay will also boast the league's sack master in Shaquil Barrett.
Let me be clear: I don't think the Seahawks are on the same level as the three teams already mentioned. But if there's any certainty in professional football, it's that Russell Wilson has the talent and will to spoil any team’s plans by winning any game.
Given Seattle is in the same division as San Francisco, and play each other twice in the regular season, I could see the Seahawks spoiling to the 49ers and getting a certain degree of home-field advantage. Perhaps it's one extra loss that is the difference between them having to play the NFC Championship Game in New Orleans instead of San Francisco or it’s the difference between getting a first-round bye.
Their Own Trenches
One of the 49ers’ strengths was in the trenches, and they lost two key players from last season.
Defensive tackle DeForest Buckner was traded to the Colts in exchange for a first-round pick in this year’s draft. Buckner was one of the most dominant interior defensive forces in 2019 and a catalyst to San Francisco’s Super Bowl run. It wasn’t just what he brought to the team with his own talents, but how his presence complemented Nick Bosa, Dee Ford and Arik Armstead. The 49ers drafted Javon Kinlaw at No. 14 to help replace Buckner, but trading out a Pro Bowl player for a rookie, no matter how high a ceiling they may have, is a big shift.
San Francisco had one of the strongest offensive lines in the conference. Offensive tackles Mike McGlinchey and Joe Staley made a great pairing, but Staley recently retired after 13 seasons. The 49ers were able to act quickly to replace him, trading for long-time Washington tackle Trent Williams. However, even though Williams can play at a playoff-caliber level, any change brings an unknown projection.
San Francisco did a good job of curbing some of its losses in the trenches, but the 49ers must be strong in those areas again if they are to make another run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy.