Over the past week, the 49ers have gone from a team many so-called experts were predicting to lose in their playoff opener against the Green Bay Packers to the national media’s new darling.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s record-setting day in the 45-31 win in the team’s playoff opener got him on the cover of Sports Illustrated, and his trademark bicep kiss has been dubbed Kaepernicking. The possibility of a Harbaugh Bowl — matching 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh against his brother, John, coach of the Baltimore Ravens — looms for the second straight year.
Harbaugh wouldn’t compare this year’s feeling to last year’s — sticking to his motto, “If people are saying nice things about you, kick them in the shins and get back to work.” Any questions on topics other than the playoffs were dismissed as irrelevant.
Kaepernick said he watches “anything on TV but sports” when he goes home at night.
Defensive lineman Justin Smith wasn’t so hesitant.
“Just because you know how you feel after last year, beating the Saints,” he said. “I was like, ‘Oh, man we got a chance, we are one or two games away.’ This one is like ... ‘Let’s go down there, take care of business and try to get to the big one and win.’”
Smith is fortunate to be in the playoffs at all after tearing a triceps and missing the final two games of the regular season. He played with a brace on Saturday, and said he expects to be able to improve his performance in the NFC Championship Game today in Atlanta now that he knows what to expect.
Knowing what to expect from the Falcons is another story, however. Quarterback Matt Ryan had his best year statistically this season, and last week’s victory over the Seattle Seahawks was the first postseason win of his career. Their record-setting tight end, Tony Gonzalez, plans to retire after this season, providing plenty of motivation for his teammates.
“He may not be as fast as he once used to be,” Niners linebacker Patrick Willis said of Gonzalez. “But he’s really crafty and he knows how to get open.”
While Atlanta’s passing numbers get all the attention — 4,719 yards from Ryan, and having Roddy White and Julio Jones each over 1,000 yards receiving will do that — Smith said focusing on the passing game alone would be a mistake. Nevermind that Michael Turner led the team with just 800 rushing yards.
“I think they are going to come out and surprise people that aren’t scouting them,” Smith said. “They are going to try to stay balanced. They have two really good running backs and they run the ball exceptionally hard. ... We are going to have to make sure we stop them so we can try to make them a little bit more one-dimensional.”
Two trends would seem to bode ill for the 49ers as they head to the Georgia Dome: They are 1-2 in domes this season, and the franchise has not won a road playoff game since 1989.
Just don’t expect Harbaugh or the 49ers to concern themselves with such irrelevancies.