NEW ORLEANS -- Offensive linemen Alex Boone and Mike Iupati stood in one corner of a near-empty San Francisco locker room and pondered just how close they had come to winning the Super Bowl.
It quickly began to sink in, beneath the Superdome on Sunday night as the Baltimore Ravens celebrated, that their season had ended short of the goal.
One year, they almost reached the NFL's championship game. The next, they nearly won it.
"It just hurts, it hurts now," Iupati said. "There are no words to express how we feel right now. We've got to put it in the past now and we can't ever forget this moment. We've just got to go out there and next year is another year, and compete."The 49ers head into the off-season following a 34-31 Super Bowl loss knowing they were right there against the Ravens, and now move forward with the hope of keeping much of the team together and building to get back -- and this time win it all.
One big question: What to do with backup quarterback Alex Smith?
CEO Jed York said last week he would address Smith's situation soon. Smith would like to have the chance to start somewhere, and the 49ers realize that's a fair request.
"Last year losing in the NFC championship game, come back this year and you're in the Super Bowl, it feels the same way," running back Frank Gore said. "Any other team probably would have just laid down but we kept fighting. We just didn't get it done."
Coach Jim Harbaugh and general manager Trent Baalke will soon begin planning for the 2013 season -- not to mention the draft in April -- and determine whether they can find a team for Smith.
The 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick lost his starting job in November to second-year pro Colin Kaepernick, who nearly led the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history in the 10th start of his NFL career.
A win would have put him right there in the 49ers' storied Super Bowl history aside Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young, who led San Francisco's last championship after the 1994 season.
The Niners lost for the first time in six Super Bowls, leaving Harbaugh to shake hands with Ravens coach and big brother, John, afterward as the loser in the first sibling-coached championship.
"We want to handle this with class and grace," Harbaugh said. "Had several opportunities in the game. Didn't play our best game."
The 25-year-old Kaepernick, a strong-armed, mobile quarterback with loads of tattoos and a signature touchdown move -- pumping his right arm and kissing his biceps -- went 7-3 as a starter and gave great promise to a franchise that wants to make Super Bowls an annual thing again.
Last season it was another three-point loss, 20-17 to the Giants in the NFC title game, that ended the 49ers' season.
"Knowing how hard it is to get here, it's not promised," defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois said.
Kaepernick finished 16 for 28 for 302 yards with three sacks and an interception for a 91.7 passer rating. The interception was the first by the 49ers in six Super Bowls and ended a streak at 169 passes without one.
San Francisco nearly pulled off another improbable comeback, as it did in rallying from a 17-0 deficit to win 28-24 at Atlanta for the NFC championship.
"We let everybody know what type of guys we've got in our locker room," Gore said. "It's hard to break us, we're going to keep fighting. They just got it done today."
The 49ers had three chances from the 5 with less than 2 minutes left, and Kaepernick threw three straight incomplete passes intended for Michael Crabtree, who got tangled up with cornerback Jimmy Smith on the final play but no holding was called -- though Harbaugh begged for a flag from the sideline, signalling a penalty at the officials.
Kaepernick directed four second-half scoring drives, throwing a 31-yard touchdown pass to Crabtree and also running 15 yards for a TD. But the 49ers missed the 2-point conversion that would have tied the game with less than 10 minutes left.
"This is kind of tough, to get this far and let everything slip away through your hands," linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. "The funny thing about it is, within the next few months, we're going to start trying to get back to the same place that we're at right now."
And this ball-hawking linebacking corps should be encouraged because the four starters are each signed through at least the 2015 season -- Aldon Smith's contract takes him three more seasons, Patrick Willis will be around through 2016, Brooks through '17 and NaVorro Bowman through '18 after signing a five-year contract extension in November worth $45.25 million, with $25.5 million in guaranteed money.
Aldon Smith finished with a franchise-record 19 1/2 sacks in 2012 -- falling three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season mark set in 2001 for the Giants. Yet he didn't have one over the final three games, most of that stretch with Justin Smith sidelined because of a partially torn left triceps.
Rookie running back LaMichael James, a late-season surprise after hardly getting a look early in the year, is sure this team has another post-season run ahead -- if not as soon as next season.
Thinking about the future might be easy for a rookie, yet the veterans know there are guys who go their entire career and never get this far.
"It's tough," Gore said. "When you're in the dance, you want to get it."