Harbaugh: 'I'd like our guys to play the best game they've ever played'
A win Sunday would give the 49ers 27 since Jim Harbaugh took over, the second-highest total in the league over that span. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
SANTA CLARA -- Jim Harbaugh's culture-changing 13-3 rookie season at the helm of the 49ers came to an end at the hands of the New York Giants last Jan. 22. Three hundred and sixty three days later, the 49ers will once again be 60 minutes of winning football away from the franchise's sixth Super Bowl appearance.
This time, though, things are different.
"We were so excited after winning the Saints game," recalled 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith. "I didn't feel the same, 'oh we did it,' (emotions) after the Packers game. And we beat a heck of a team in the Packers.
"I feel like the whole team kind of got a sense of there's more to this thing then just getting to this game."
For a storied franchise like the 49ers, which boasts the fourth-most postseason wins in NFL history (27), it's Super Bowl No. 6 or bust.
Last year Harbaugh took the reigns following a 6-10 year that saw Mike Singletary fired. Jim Tomsula's win as interim head coach in the final game of the season ended a 45-82 stretch over eight seasons that spanned head coaches Dennis Erickson, Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan and Singletary.
Entering 2011 with that recent history, It's easy to understand Smith's sentiment that the team was a little too happy just to have reached the NFC Championship.
"It definitely has a different feel in the locker room," Smith said, "this one as opposed to last year."
Having gone through it once before, from top to bottom the team is better prepared for what lies ahead.
"We've been here," eight-year veteran Carlos Rogers said. "It feels like it's home for us."
The "nothing new" mentality is a strong indication that Harbaugh is in the midst of building a powerhouse. A win Sunday would give the 49ers 27 total victories since the head coach took over and tie the franchise with the Packers for the second-most wins in the NFL during that span.
Jonathan Goodwin, who joined the team at the right time prior to the 2011 season, offered an interesting take on the failing to reach the Super Bowl last year.
"I wonder if we may have gotten a little over confident with having a home game." Goodwin questioned. "We know it's not that simple. You gotta go out and play the game."
Rogers has another idea.
"We just need to go in and shut their crowd down and make it a home game for us," the cornerback said.
No matter how the 49ers choose to game plan, only head coach Jim Harbaugh seems to notice no discernible difference between last year's feel and the current state of the locker room.
"No, I don't know about the feel," Harbaugh deflected. "Just other than what it is now. It feels like our team is determined, focused and ready to get on a plane and play a football game."
But the head coach is one of the few shying from comparisons.
"This year," said backup linebacker and special teams ace Larry Grant, "we have a completely different level of confidence."
As Goodwin pointed out, the team was confident last year, too. And while they played well enough to pull out a win, they fumbled late.
"The confidence is big," said fullback Bruce Miller, who was admittedly a wide-eyed rookie in the playoffs last season. "But even more so, this year, is the focus and the determination that we're not going to let this one slip away."