After falling 5 yards short of a Super Bowl victory last February, the San Francisco 49ers will have traveled nearly 10,000 miles in the playoffs just to give themselves another championship opportunity.
Strong finishes at Green Bay and Carolina have sent San Francisco into Sunday’s NFC title game at Seattle. A look at the 49ers:
Even as a wild-card entrant, the 49ers were considered a huge threat in the NFC playoffs and they’ve delivered so far with a fierce defense and an offense that recently is coming to life.
How they got here
The 49ers went 12-4, finishing second in the NFC West and earning a No. 5 seed. They beat Green Bay 23-20 with a last-second field goal and downed Carolina 23-10.
Super Bowl-bound if ...
San Francisco figures out how to thrive in Seattle, where the 49ers have been overwhelmed each of the past two seasons. A good start would be a big help.
Homeward-bound if ...
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is erratic, while operating an offense that ranked 24th in the regular season. Seattle’s secondary is very good and the Seahawks’ offense takes advantage of turnovers.
Now that receiver Michael Crabtree is back in the lineup, Anquan Boldin receives less focus from defenders. He brought attention to himself with his on-field chatter at Carolina, but he also caught eight passes for 136 yards. With anything resembling that production, the former Baltimore receiver can play his way into another Super Bowl.
Linebacker Patrick Willis is the traditional answer, but teammate NaVorro Bowman may have eclipsed him this season as a first-team All-Pro linebacker. Bowman has made an NFL-high 21 tackles in two playoff games.
Best player you’ve never heard of
Offensive tackle Joe Staley. A steady player throughout his career, Staley has earned more recognition this season and held Carolina’s Greg Hardy without a sack.
East High School product Will Tukuafu is now strictly a fullback, after originally joining the 49ers as a defensive lineman.
Tukuafu injured his knee after catching a pass against Carolina and is being evaluated this week. Chuck Jacobs, a former Utah State receiver, is on the 49ers’ practice squad. Tracy Smith, an assistant special teams coach, and Mark Uyeyama, the strength and conditioning coach, worked at USU.
Reasons to cheer for them
The 49ers have enjoyed a strong Utah following, because of geography and the ties to former quarterbacks Steve Young and Alex Smith. Playing in a third straight NFC championship game, San Francisco is making the kind of steady ascent that rarely occurs in the NFL. Coach Jim Harbaugh and Kaepernick are demonstrative, dynamic and fun to watch in their roles.
Reasons to cheer against them
Any compliment to the brash, unrestrained natures of Harbaugh and Kaepernick also can be used against them.
Wednesday’s column is the first in a series previewing Sunday’s NFL championship game contestants. Wednesday • the San Francisco 49ers.