Who thought Alex Smith would ever be mentioned in positive comparisons with former 49ers quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young?
Or that this 49ers team would so often be compared to the 1981 San Francisco team that went to its first Super Bowl under Bill Walsh?
Back in August, the answer to both would have been “nobody.”
And that’s exactly why this Niners team should beat the New York Giants today in the NFC Championship Game at Candlestick Park and advance to the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 against either the Patriots or Ravens.
Sometimes, a team makes a magical run from out of nowhere to get to the NFL’s championship game. There were those 49ers of 1981, the Arizona Cardinals of 2008, the Seattle Seahawks of 2005, the St. Louis Rams of 1999.
And now, these 49ers have been blessed with the same momentum.
Five reasons the San Francisco 49ers will win the NFC championship today:
Home-field advantage: Last week, Candlestick Park was described by Jim Harbaugh as a “fortress” for the Niners, and it will be the same way today. The 49ers are 8-1 at Candlestick, with the only loss coming to the Cowboys in overtime early in the season, and getting to play at home – where Smith has posted far superior numbers this season – is a huge advantage. Because of flight problems, the Giants didn’t even arrive in San Francisco until Saturday evening. And now, the probability of rain has been forecast at “100 percent.” Rain will be an ally for the Niners, who should be able to run the ball more effectively than the Giants.
Smith: His comeback from near-oblivion – from being benched last season and suffering through years of mediocre performances and criticism – can’t end any other way but with a trip to the Super Bowl. His clutch play last week simply can’t be followed by a flop against the Giants. At quarterback, he has become far more than a “game manager,” and that growth, combined with a solid running game, a blossoming offensive line and a go-to receiver in tight end Vernon Davis, makes this 49ers offense much more dangerous than it was earlier in the year. And remember: Smith has confidence now. He not only pulled out the win against the Saints last week, he pulled out a win over the Giants on this same field in November.
Harbaugh: Giants coach Tom Coughlin has won a Super Bowl. He has coached the Giants from a 7-7 start to the NFC Championship Game, and his team seems to be peaking. But who’s got it better than Harbaugh? Nobody. Harbaugh completely turned around this team in his first year, hiring a terrific coaching staff, instilling confidence in Smith and giving his team a focus on fundamentals – tackling, blocking, special teams – that is apparent every single game. He’s made all the right moves so far this season, so expect him to pull all the right strings today. Earlier this week, he even hoped it would rain so he could prepare his team for today’s wet weather. Clearly, he’s a coach with a team on a mission.
Defense and special teams: Both teams have terrific defensive units. Both teams shut down high-powered offenses a week ago in beating the Packers (Giants) and Saints (49ers). But the 49ers' ability to stop the run will be a key factor today. The 49ers were the top rushing defense in the NFL this season, allowing just 3.5 yards per carry and 77.2 yards per game, while the Giants ranked 19th, allowing 121.2 yards per game. The Niners will shut down the run and put the whole weight of the offense on Eli Manning’s shoulders. Manning will get his yards – just as he did in the first game against the 49ers this season – but the Giant will need a running game today on the wet field at Candlestick. The Niners special teams, meanwhile, have been the best, with a Pro Bowl place-kicker and punter and units that rarely make mistakes.
Magic happens: There’s no logic to everything that’s happened to the 49ers this season, just pure, magical happenstance. The hiring of Harbaugh; having a great, impactful draft class; re-signing Smith and seeing him blossom; putting together a secondary from three free agents that melded into one of the NFL’s best; signing David Akers as place-kicker, then watching him have his best season ever; having Frank Gore return to form after last season’s injury; earning the NFC’s No. 2 seed with a tiebreaker over the Saints, then beating them because of the home-field advantage that came with it; and, finally, having the Giants knock off the Packers, keeping San Francisco at home instead of having to play in wintry Green Bay. Magic happens, and it should continue to happen today.