The 49ers have now made it to the NFC Championship Game in each of coach Jim Harbaugh’s first three seasons, something no other coach had done before in the Super Bowl era. The main difference this season, though, is that they’ve had to do so without the benefit of a home game in the postseason.
They’ve faced the frigid conditions at Lambeau Field when they beat the Green Bay Packers, handled a long trip to the East Coast to play the Carolina Panthers, and now will head north to what is widely regarded as the loudest stadium in the league to face the Seattle Seahawks.
According to Harbaugh, the thing that has carried them this far is their ability to stay poised under pressure.
“I’m sure we could get into a long discussion about it, or peal back the onion layer by layer,” he said. “But good football players, good team. Defense has played extremely well. That’s very important in road games. Our players have competed and persevered and come out victorious. Those are the facts.”
The defining moments for the defense in Sunday’s 23-10 victory against the Panthers came with a pair of goal-line stands early in the game. Twice the Panthers got to the 1-yard line, and both times they were held out of the end zone, including a failed fourth-down try on the first trip.
Harbaugh said going away from the 6-2 defense they usually run in goal-line situations to a 5-3 was the key Sunday.
“For the years we’ve been here, we’ve never shown a 5-3 look,” he said. “By taking Ahmad [Brooks] and moving him into the center to create the 5-3 was what was unscouted. We had not shown that and I thought it was a great move by [defensive coordinator] Vic Fangio. We talked about it during the week. This is something that would be very difficult for the opposition if we get in that position and Vic said, ‘Well, I hope we’re not in that position.’ Sure enough we were in that position two times, and that planning, that preparation by our players, especially by Vic Fangio and the defensive coaches was profound.”
The defense will have a tough task in Seattle, where it will face a rushing attack led by former Cal star Marshawn Lynch, who ran for 140 yards against the New Orleans Saints on Saturday.
Lynch ran for 72 yards and 98 yards, respectively, in the two games against the 49ers in the regular season. He also scored four total touchdowns, three on the ground and one receiving.