This time, it will be different.
That’s the mantra the Ravens and 49ers must carry into Sunday’s conference championships.
One step from the Super Bowl once more, the Ravens and 49ers believe they’ve found that extra element for success. For San Francisco, it might be the versatility and big-play potential Colin Kaepernick brings to the offense.
The odds makers believe the Niners have what they need to beat the Falcons one year after an overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC title game; San Francisco is favored by 3 1-2 points at Atlanta. That says a lot.
The 49ers’ Coach Jim Harbaugh sees the togetherness and developing maturity of his team as a reason it could reach the franchise’s first Super Bowl since winning its fifth in 1995.
“We want to be about that,” he said. “But I don’t think it’s attributed to anything, I think it’s just who we are as a team, who our players are. It’s a talent and it’s character. I’ve always thought that about our team.
“Being a great teammate, doing the best to your God-given ability each and every time, is a great gift that you can give another man. To have his back. That’s a strong phrase, but I don’t think that’s just something our guys talk about, I think it’s who they are.”
Who the Niners are is quite different this time around. Last season, they used a shutdown defense, strong special teams and a conservative, avoid-mistakes offense to get this far. But quarterback Alex Smith and that offense bogged down too often against the Giants.
San Francisco added Randy Moss and Mario Manningham at wideout and still had the superb Frank Gore at running back. But Moss has been a complementary player and Manningham is out with a torn knee.
Tight end Vernon Davis, Smith’s most reliable target a year ago, has had a lesser role.
The big changes? The emergence of receiver Michael Crabtree, the solidification of the offensive line, and, of course, Kaepernick.
As he showed in setting a playoff record for QBs with 181 yards rushing, and throwing for 243 in the divisional round against Green Bay — his playoff debut, no less — Kaepernick is a game-breaker.
“I think quarterbacks that have a talent for running the ball can be very effective,” Jim Harbaugh said, stating precisely what he felt when he left Smith on the bench after the incumbent recovered from a concussion late in the season and went the rest of the way with Kaepernick.
“That’s been long known in football, the National Football League as well. A quarterback that can get out of the pocket, run, pick up first downs, that’s a threat that the defense has to account for.”
It’s also what the 49ers didn’t have in their repertoire against New York. Now, they have inserted a whole section of plays in the game plan built around Kaepernick’s speed and intermediate hurdler strides.
“There are some quarterback-driven runs that have been added because our quarterbacks are very good at those, and Colin especially,” Jim Harbaugh said. “It’s already noted that he’s very fast. He’s very good at reading and executing that type of offense. So, that’s the reason.”
And a main reason the people in the Bay Area believe this is the 49ers’ year.