49ers keeping their cool as hype heats up

Now a national story: Niners grace the cover of SI

The 49ers went back to work on Wednesday with their team facility suddenly transformed to accommodate a nearly three-fold increase in media presence. Extra chairs, extra questions and extra time at the podium.

The hype around them has indeed reached the next level, but the Niners hardly seemed to even notice. If they're supposed to feel any extra pressure this week, sorry, it's just not going to happen.

That's the beauty of how Jim Harbaugh and his staff have raised their team of "mighty men" — as Harbaugh likes to call them — over the course of the past five months. Week by week, win by win, rung by rung up the ladder of NFL prominence, nothing ever was too big for this well-grounded, chemistry-laden, focused family of football players.

That's certainly not going to change now just because the 49ers are playing Sunday in the NFC Championship Game.

But everything around them has changed. The Niners are a full-blown national story now. They're the new darlings of the NFL. They're on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week. The spotlight is on, and it is beaming down on them bright and hot.

Since it had been a long dry spell of eight seasons without a winning record or playoff berth before their Harbaugh-induced 2011 turnaround, you might think those blue work shirts distributed earlier this season to every 49ers player might be getting just a little bit tight around the collar right now.

It's supposed to be intimidating and extreme at this stage, when you're playing to reach football's biggest stage. That's particularly true for a team comprised mostly of players who made their playoff debuts only last weekend.

But the Niners?

Well, they're acting like they've been there before, even if most of them have not.

With San Francisco preparing to host the surging New York Giants at Candlestick Park, quarterback Alex Smith was asked an animated question regarding how it felt to be the team playing with something to lose this week, compared to the road-warrior Giants coming to town with nothing to lose.

Smith, who typically has failed to even register on the scale of emotion during his interview sessions this season, gave such a collected response that you had to wonder if throwing a scintillating TD pass to Vernon Davis in the final seconds against the New Orleans Saints is the only thing that ever could get the guy excited again.

"I guess I feel like at this point in the game, with four teams left, there's just no underdog, there's no favorite," Smith said. "We all have the same amount to lose. We're all fighting for a trip to the Super Bowl."

As Smith was saying, the 49ers are just like everybody else, which means there's no reason for them to be feeling any different now — even with the stakes getting raised sky high.

In New York, the Giants are turning up the heat with juicy sound bites, saying they won't be denied and suggesting they have become unstoppable now that they've gone from a 7-7 team to a Super Bowl contender in a matter of four weeks.

The Niners' response?

Nothing but praise for the Giants. Nothing but respect. Nothing but saying this is a better New York team now than they beat, 27-20, back in November.

It sounded a lot like what the 49ers said every week this season about their opponents.

But don't confuse praise, respect and acknowledgement for weakness. The 49ers may be playing it straight before their biggest game of the season, but that's not to suggest they don't understand the opportunity that's in front of them.

"To say that anyone should win these games, I think is kidding themselves," Smith said. "Look at last week. I think everybody thought the road was going to go through Lambeau (Field, in Green Bay). I think everybody assumed the championship game was going to be played there, and look what happened. At this point, everybody is as good as each other, and it's all going to come down to how you execute on that day. We're all capable of beating each other, that's for sure."

And to be sure, the 49ers are leaving it at that.

Next question, please.

This is a team that's as loose and relaxed as it has ever been.

Perhaps the thought that this season will be considered an unmitigated success no matter what happens next has actually relieved any extra pressure that arrives with this kind of opportunity.

Or maybe it's just that this team has matured enough that it's simply not feeling the pressure. At the very least, it's certainly not being bothered by it.

"We're not worried about everything that everyone has to say about us," tight end Vernon Davis said. "We're just relaxed. We're really loose, and we're able to just go out and focus on our assignments. We're not tight at all."

Not even the youngest of them all.

"It's just a hungry team, and we want to win," said rookie Aldon Smith, one of three 22-year-olds on the roster. "None of that other stuff really matters. We set a goal, and that's to make it to the Super Bowl. And we just want to win."

As Smith followed Harbaugh to the press-tent podium and then Patrick Willis followed Smith before Davis followed Willis, the message was the same: Glad to be here, deserve to be here, but more work to be done, and it starts right now.

No tenseness. Just slowly smoldering intensity, like the 49ers usually are exuding at this stage of the week.

Coming off such an emotionally-draining weekend that featured their dramatic, comeback victory over the Saints, the Niners looked and talked refreshed. They might have left it all out on the field last Saturday, but this team appears to have plenty left.

"You just take it one week at a time and keep moving," said defensive end Justin Smith, an emotional leader of this team if there ever was one. "It's been working so far, so we're going to stick with it. It will be pretty easy. We've got the NFC Championship Game coming up, we know our opponent, it's a home game, so we've got our crowd behind us, got a little familiarity with them. We're just ready to play."

It's been that way all season. They may be playing for a trip to the Super Bowl — with plenty of surrounding distractions this week to remind them — but those curious to see how the hype might bother the Niners saw it not even causing them to blink.

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