By Ann Killion
January 11, 2012

This journey started in the dog days of summer in New Orleans.

Not the Saints' journey. The 49ers'.

Five months ago, the 49ers traveled south with their new coach, Jim Harbaugh. The coaches barely knew the players. The players didn't know what the coaches wanted. The group had practiced together for just 13 days.

In the preseason game in the Superdome the experienced Saints blitzed and blitzed. The 49ers were overwhelmed, quarterback Alex Smith was pummeled and it looked like the same old 49ers all over again. San Francisco lost 24-3. Back in the Bay Area, 49ers fans groaned. Another long season.

Fast forward to today. The 49ers are 13-3 and will host the Saints on Saturday in the NFC Divisional game on their own (natural grass) turf.

"Obviously, we've come a long way," said Smith, the master of understatement.

The resurgence has been so startling, so unexpected, that it's bringing back memories of the 49ers original rebirth. Thirty years ago this week, Dwight Clark caught a touchdown pass in the back of the end zone from Joe Montana (The Catch), launching the 49ers dynasty.

"I just wanted Harbaugh to get people talking about the 49ers again," Clark said this week. "Nationally no one was paying attention to us. We were like Cleveland. I was hoping he could jump-start things a little."

Harbaugh jump-started things all right, in a way no one expected -- given that he was a rookie coach grappling with virtually no offseason due to the lockout.

The Saints did the 49ers a favor, forcing a trial by fire in their first outing and exposing their flaws. The Saints also played directly in Harbaugh's us-against-the-world mentality, which -- combined with his staff's ability to put the same players who went 6-10 last year in a position to succeed -- has helped form a tight-knit, confident group.

Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' surprising preseason blitz attack has been a hot topic of discussion again this week. After that August game, there was a report that Sean Payton was miffed Harbaugh didn't call him before the game in accordance with a league "gentleman's agreement" and told Williams to unleash the dogs. Payton vehemently denied the report this week, calling it "bogus" and saying the Saints were simply installing their blitz packages.

No matter. Harbaugh seemed to enjoy the story saying, he even checked with his brother, John, if there was a gentleman's agreement.

"He wasn't aware of any," Harbaugh said. "And even if there was, we wouldn't do it anyway. We ask no quarter, we give no quarter."

Harbaugh has charged through the NFL, turning postgame handshakes into confrontations (Detroit), irritating his arch-nemesis from college coaching (Seattle), upsetting established powers (Pittsburgh, Philadelphia) and infusing his team with self-belief.

"We're not even the same team," 49ers tackle Joe Staley said "We have so much more confidence, we're so much more sure of ourselves and the schemes and what we're doing."

The 49ers learned in that first preseason game that they had to protect Smith, who Harbaugh has remained steadfastly committed to from Day 1. The emphasis with the offensive line became as basic as pad level and leverage. Smith has received better protection and with it has come fewer mistakes: Smith has thrown only five interceptions this year, a major reason the 49ers have the league's fewest turnovers with 10.

The turnover battle will be key: the 49ers defense has forced a league-leading 38 turnovers and has made the plays when they counted, unlike Detroit which dropped three potential Drew Brees' interceptions last weekend.

The 49ers defense is second-ranked in the league, going against the Saints second-ranked offense. It's a complete contrast in styles.

"There are a lot of different ways to win games in this league," Smith said.

The 49ers want to win the game by winning the turnover battle, controlling the clock with Frank Gore, keeping the ball out of Brees' hand as much as possible and relying on their defense.

The Saints are statistically a different team when they're outside the Superdome. They've never won a playoff game in an opponent's stadium, most recently losing to Seattle last January.

"You've got Drew inside there, a live band, Mardi Gras, you've got everything going on in there," said defensive tackle Ricky Jean Francois. "Bringing him outside might be an advantage."

But the 49ers are careful not to assume the Saints will struggle outdoors. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said he didn't put much credence in the theory that the Saints are ineffective outside the Superdome. And the weather in the Bay Area is expected to be 64 degrees and bone-dry on Saturday; it hasn't rained in weeks so there's no hope for a muddy track.

But there's still a definite home-field advantage. The 49ers fans have rediscovered their voice after many years of dormancy and can make things difficult for Brees. Former Saints center Jonathan Goodwin, who came to the 49ers as a free agent in August, remembers that when the Saints visited Candlestick Park in 2007 they didn't ever have to go to a silent count. But when they came for a Monday night game in 2010 -- winning 25-22 -- they noticed it was much louder.

It will be louder than that on Saturday. The fans are in full-throttle and full-belief mode. Their team has evolved from that uncertain group who traveled to New Orleans last summer to a legitimate contender.

But the 49ers are still inexperienced when it comes to the playoffs. Jean Francois noted that, normally, they'd be packed up and well into their vacations by now.

Harbaugh has told his team not to "overcook" the game. But that's almost impossible.

"It's difficult," said San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree. "Especially the position we're in. We've never been in a playoff before. It should be big for us."

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