San Francisco 49ers: Win or lose, they're back

San Francisco 49ers, after a decade of irrelevance, are in the NFC championship game, on the brink of the Super Bowl. Welcome back, San Francisco 49ers.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP
San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes against the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter of an NFL divisional playoff game in San Francisco. The 49ers face the New York Giants in the NFC championship game Sunday.

This playoff season seems bent on chucking every story line the NFL had going in 2011.

The Packers’ perfect season? Out. Tebow magic? Done, for now. The firing of Tom Coughlin?  We can definitely count that out, at least for another year (New York fans have a short memory, but beating the mighty Packers in Lambeau field at least ensures the Giants head coach gets to show up for work again in August).  Peyton Manning’s position at the top of the Manning hierarchy?  Even that’s in question, as a slew of analysts are now suggesting that little brother Eli might have been the best Manning all along.

Meanwhile, the barely noticed San Francisco 49ers had their best season in over a decade and emerged victorious from perhaps the best game of the playoffs against the Saints. The team by the bay has made it to the NFC championship, one win away from the Super Bowl.

Safe to say, no one really saw the 49ers coming. Why would they? San Francisco hadn’t had a winning record since 2002. Their biggest roster change from 2010’s 6-10 season was at head coach. Jim Harbaugh was an NFL coaching rookie, too, fresh from Stanford University. Given the team he was inheriting, a “rebuilding year” would have been reasonable.

The 49ers most recognizable player? Quarterback Alex Smith, who has had a fraught relationship with the 49ers since the team drafted him first overall in the 2005 NFL Draft.  He’s been booed and benched constantly throughout his seven seasons; until last week, the highest praise anyone could muster for Smith concerned his “game management” skills. But he clinched the NFC Championship for San Francisco last Saturday, with a game-winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left.

The rest of the 49ers roster has blossomed in the same way. Bucking the trend of most offense-heavy playoff squads this year, the 49ers have the best rush defense in the league, as well as a dangerous running game led by running back Frank Gore. The New York Giants are playing like a dream, but it will take their best to beat San Francisco at Candlestick Park.

Even if they do, the 49ers are beginning to look like their old selves again. There was a time, not so very long ago, when the franchise’s storied tradition and decades of domination garnered the same fear and respect as, say, the Patriots or the Packers do now.  With five winning Super Bowl appearances, 16 consecutive seasons of 10-plus wins, and two Hall of Fame quarterbacks in a row (Joe Montana and Steve Young), the 49ers dynasty of the 1980s and '90s was so dominant that it has little chance of being duplicated anytime soon.

Their reign at the top of the NFL seemed endless in both directions: If you grew up in the 1990’s, Joe Montana was a word problem in your math workbook. Steve Young and wide receiver Jerry Rice were doing a funny Visa commercial on your television.

These 49ers aren’t quite there yet. But other teams are justifiably scared of the red and gold again, and that’s a good place to start.

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