"It's a very hard pill to swallow, especially when you beat a team in the regular season and prepare like we did going into that game," Whitner said during a visit to NFL Media headquarters on Tuesday. "We felt we had a great opportunity to win that game to go to the Super Bowl -- and for it to end the way it did, with a special teams turnover ... We felt like we were playing really well on defense in the second half and to lose a game like that is really tough."
"We all felt like we were going to the Super Bowl," Whitner said. "Going into the New Orleans game (NFC divisional playoffs), we felt like New Orleans and ourselves were the two best teams in the playoffs. The team that won that game was going to ultimately win the Super Bowl. We were wrong. The Giants ended up beating us. We thought we could be them. We had a great opportunity at home. They made one more play then we made and got a three-point win. That was tough."
Whitner knows the trappings that await the Niners in 2012: A tougher schedule, opponents targeting them and the potential that players will think they're too good because they won 13 games and the NFC West last season. But the painful way the 49ers' season ended is so sobering, he said he can't see any mental slippage.
"With a good offseason, OTAs to learn all the small nuances of the defense and offense going into training camp, we could be better," said the former Ohio State Buckeye, who came to the 49ers last offseason after five solid seasons in Buffalo. "It could be hard to duplicate but we could have a really good football season again."
Other thoughts Whitner shared:
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- On All-Pro defensive end Justin Smith: "Arguably the MVP of the National Football League. A lot of Aldon Smith's sacks came from him being on the same side as Justin and Justin creating the room that allowed him to get to the quarterback. He gets to the quarterback himself and plays well against the run. He's getting better as he gets older. There's not enough you can say about Justin."
- On All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis: "That guy stands for fearlessness. He's the total package at linebacker. I've got one word for him: relentless."
- On upstart inside linebacker Navorro Bowman: "Patrick is 1A, Navorro is 1B. He's a young guy and still has a lot to learn but as far as intensity and want-to, he has them. You watch Patrick on film and see him make a great play. Then you see Navorro make the same play on the other side of the field. That's one of the reasons why we had such a great defense.
"If Justin was the MVP, Navorro was the co-MVP."