They get one shot. That was the reminder from the man who has helped enable them to gain that shot, Jim Harbaugh.
“It’s special being in the playoffs,” said Harbaugh, the 49ers rookie coach.
Special because they haven’t been there for years. Special because six months ago, when the lockout ended and the Harbaugh regime started, few believed the playoffs were possible.
But here they are, in a game that is a chess match, a wrestling match, a delightful contrast in styles.
The game, Saturday at Candlestick, matches the New Orleans Saints — Super Bowl winners two seasons ago, brilliant on offense, led by a Super Bowl MVP, Drew Brees — against the novices, the 49ers, whose strength is defense.
The game is one in which the Saints, who accumulate yards and points with frightening repetition, are favored, and of their experience and ability to score, they deserve to be.
“I look at them as a great team,” Harbaugh said of the Saints.
How he looks at the 49ers is understood, hard workers, over-achievers who play his type of football. “We ask no quarter,” Harbaugh said, “we give no quarter. That’s how we approach things.”
One shot. The winner goes on to the NFC championship, against the winner of Green Bay Packers-New York Giants game. The 49ers, underdogs — although with the same 13-3 regular-season record as the Saints — with one shot.
“I want them to understand what this is all about,” Harbaugh said. “They earned the right to be here. We’re focused on what we need to do, and that’s prepare for the Saints. A mix of focus and [being] loose. ... Having fun on the practice field and in meetings, and getting ready to play.”
For the Niners’ Alex Smith, the other quarterback, the one critics never thought would get this far, Harbaugh’s words have particular meaning.
“It’s good to be playing football right now,” said Smith, in his seventh season with the Niners and his first trip to the playoffs.
“It was fun to be watching last weekend,” Smith said about the 49ers having the bye, “knowing we had a game coming up.”
Not a game. The game, although among Tim Tebow, the Patriots and the over-hyped Giants, a game getting little attention other than in Bayou Country and by the Golden Gate.
Which, in a way, is where this season began, the 49ers defeating Seattle in the opener and Harbaugh properly grumbling he couldn’t find one highlight when he turned on the TV.
In subsequent weeks, he’s captivated Northern California. Memories of the 1980s have returned. No Joe Montana, no Ronnie Lott, but pro football in January in San Francisco. A significant step forward. And back to a storied past.
During the lockout, according to Sports Illustrated, Harbaugh studied tapes of Bill Walsh and his assistants giving motivational speeches and teaching during workouts.
“It was valuable stuff,” Harbaugh said. “It’s like a connection to history.”
By making it to the postseason for the first time since 2002, the Niners have connected in another way. This is where they hadn’t been. This is where they belong.
“This is why you play,” Smith said, “to get a ticket to the dance.”
The music is about to begin.
Art Spander has been covering Bay Area sports since 1965 and also writes on www.artspander.com and www.realclearsports.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHEN: Saturday, 1:30 p.m.
WHERE: Candlestick Park
TV: Fox (KTVU, Ch. 2)
RADIO: KNBR (680 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)