SANTA CLARA — Andy Lee’s nerves came on a full day before the 49ers’ playoff opener a year ago, not just leading up to his first punt as is typically the case each game. Tight end Vernon Davis was surprised at his butterflies stepping onto the NFL’s big stage for the first time, too.
Last January, most of the 49ers had never been part of a playoff game and were suiting up for a rookie NFL coach. So much was made of the playoff inexperience at the time. Now, it’s just the opposite.
These days, Jim Harbaugh’s team is a playoff-tested bunch of veterans determined to make this a special postseason run that goes one step further — to the Super Bowl.
The NFC West champion Niners (11-4-1) can move closer to that goal when they host the Green Bay Packers in the divisional playoffs on Saturday night in a rematch of the season opener in September won 30-22 by San Francisco at Lambeau Field.
“A lot of guys don’t know what it’s like until they get out there,” Davis said. “For me, last year was kind of like, ‘Wow!’ The energy, the atmosphere was on a whole other level. If you don’t know, you might want to ask somebody so you won’t be too surprised like I was.”
Not that it ever showed.
In a 36-32 upset of Drew Brees and the favored New Orleans Saints, Davis made a leaping 14-yard touchdown catch under pressure on a perfectly thrown ball from Alex Smith with 9 seconds remaining in the NFC divisional playoffs. Davis had another spectacular outing in the NFC Championship Game, catching touchdown passes of 73 and 28 yards in the Niners’ 20-17 overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
“There are definitely more of our players who have been through the playoffs and can personally share with the first- or second-year players who haven’t been through the playoffs what that experience was like for them,” Harbaugh said. “They can personalize it from conversation to conversation. I hope our young guys are taking advantage of that.”
So much was different about this season. San Francisco never ran off with the NFC West this time, yet still captured a consecutive division crown. There were no long winning streaks — and the Niners even had a frustrating home tie mixed in — and fewer victories than in Harbaugh’s Coach of the Year debut season. Yet, here they are again as the NFC’s No. 2 seed and fresh off a bye week to rest and prepare.
“We know what to expect going forward,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “I think last year a lot of the players had to draw from the older veterans. We all have playoff experience on this team. We know what kind of atmosphere it’s going to be.”