The Harbaugh Era; Three seasons, 48 regular season games, six playoff games. The 49ers have had a lot of the same players on the team throughout this time, they have been through many battles together and have bonded in the process. When Jim Harbaugh referenced the Johnny Cash song "I've been everywhere", he wasn't kidding. They've been to a lot of places, a lot of hostile environments. Trips to Tampa Bay, Tennessee, and teams of that caliber haven't had that playoff feel to the games themselves, but many others have.
Some notable tests during Colin Kaepernick's time as starting quarterback:
- December 16th, 2012 at Patriots: A Sunday Night Football game that featured an impressive start by the 49ers, building a 31-3 lead into the third quarter. This game was far from over, as Tom Brady engineered an impressive comeback to tie the game at 31-31. The 49ers quickly regained the lead and never looked back. A big LaMichael James kickoff return lead to a 38 yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Crabtree. 49ers win 41-31. A good win on a cold night in Foxborough.
- January 20th, 2013 at Falcons (NFC Championship Game): I was at this game and oh was it hostile. The crowd was loud, and they had every reason to be after the Falcons took a 17-0 lead. Colin Kaepernick engineered an impressive comeback in which he beat the Falcons with his arm, not his legs. He was surgical in his attack and exposed their zone defense, shredding it apart. A crucial fourth down stop in the red zone against the Falcons offense propels the 49ers to victory. On fourth down NaVorro Bowman is asked to cover Roddy White, the linebacker breaks up the bass, and 49ers fans jump in joy. 49ers win 28-24.
- Super Bowl XLVII vs. Ravens: The 49ers got off to a slow start and made some mistakes early on, and found themselves in a big hole in the third quarter down 28-6. Kaepernick appeared destined to come from behind yet again and win the Super Bowl. The game featured a horrible non-call committed by two Ravens (hold on Bruce Miller) on a Jacoby Jones kickoff return hurt the 49ers comeback bid ultimately. With five yards to go the 49ers had a chance to win in the final minute, but wasn't able to get in the endzone. 49ers lose a hard fought Super Bowl 34-31.
- Week 9 and 10 this season (vs. Panthers, at Saints): The 49ers came up short in both of these games, losing 10-9 and 23-20. Both games were talked about heavily and had a playoff vibe during the games themselves. The Saints and Panthers both were quality opponents who helped the 49ers improve their game, last week proved that in the rematch at Carolina. And although New Orleans isn't as loud as Seattle, it's still pretty darn loud and that game would have been a win if not for the Ahmad Brooks penalty on Drew Brees.
- December 23, 2013 vs. Falcons: The last game at Candlestick. This game was electric. All time 49ers greats were on hand, the fans were fired up, fireworks were scheduled at the games conclusion along with a performance from Boys II Men. If that isn't a playoff atmosphere I don't know what is. Although the Falcons weren't a good team this year, their good players stepped up and made this one a nail biter for the 49ers. After a recovered onside kick by the Falcons and the score 27-24, the Falcons were in the red zone and were marching toward the endzone. That is when Eric Reid blitzed, putting pressure on Matt Ryan, throwing it before he wanted to. The ball is deflected and winds up in Navorro Bowman's hands and he takes it to the house for a touchdown. 49ers win 34-24. The crowd was in pandemonium, it was nearly as sweet as a playoff win.
- January 5, 2014 at Packers: Frigid temperatures, talk of the elements trumped anything about the players leading up to the game. Before the game the elements can become a distraction in preparation. If us fans are thinking about the cold, you know the players are too. But the 49ers showed they weren't too distracted by the weather, both physically or mentally. It was a hard fought game, but the 49ers played heroically, winning 23-20 in the last seconds on a Phil Dawson field goal. It isn't good to look ahead, but for the fun of it... this game sure was nice preparation for a cold game taking place in February at the Meadowlands.
Last but not least, we have to talk about the games up in Seattle. The games the 49ers have played at Candlestick versus the Seahawks also have added to the grit of the team and to the "battle tested" monicker, but it's nothing compared to the battle they will face in Seattle. Last season the 49ers got a good beating up in the Pacific Northwest, losing 42-13, and this season the game just got away from San Fran. The game was 5-0 at halftime and 12-3 at the end of the third quarter. In the fourth, the turnovers kept coming and the 49ers ultimately lost 29-3.
Experience can be a hell of a teacher, and the 49ers want to show the world they've learned from their past mistakes at Seattle. It's not going to be easy, but the 49ers have shown they can play well on the road, no matter what the conditions are or the venue (except Seattle). I have to think the players are fed up of hearing about the 12th man and are more ready than ever to embrace that aspect of the game. It could be used to fuel their emotion and play in a good way. This team is mentally tough, and this is as big of a test as any to show it. All the battles they have faced prior have lead to tomorrow, and how you will see a different result at the end of four quarters. I don't know who will win, I believe in this team and staff deep down to pull out a victory, but faith alone can't guarantee a victory. However, there is one thing I am going to guarantee. This 49ers team isn't going up there and embarrassing themselves in any way, no blow out is in order.
All that is left is to go out and play the game. 49ers players don't have time to reflect on past battles, but those battles have become part of who they are as players. This is the third NFC Championship Game in three years for the Niners, the first in Carroll's tenure for the Seahawks. San Francisco is battle tested, Seattle not so much. Ultimately the game will be decided by the players on the field, and I'm going with the team who has been in this situation, who has shown their resolve time and time again.
Thanks to Bay Area Sports Guy for getting a little bit of Harbaugh singing some Johnny Cash:
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