SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The offense was stagnant, Alex Smith was ineffective and the offensive line was completely overmatched.
Few would have thought that the 49ers team that opened the Jim Harbaugh era with a preseason dud at New Orleans would be playing the Saints five months later with a spot in the NFC championship on the line.
"It's not even the same team," LT Joe Staley said. "There's so much more confidence. We're so much more sure of ourselves and the schemes and what we're doing."
During that 24-3 loss, there were few signs of the turnaround Harbaugh has engineered. San Francisco failed to get a first down on its first four drives as the first-team offense never got started. In the first half, the Niners allowed six sacks and completed four passes — with Harbaugh saying rookie Colin Kaepernick would get a shot to compete for a starting quarterback job.
That seems a lot longer than five months ago now.
Smith had by far his best season. He set career highs in completion percentage (61.4), yards passing (3,199) and passer rating (90.7) as the 49ers went 13-3 and won the NFC West.
"We're really improved," C Jonathan Goodwin said. "At that point we had maybe two weeks of practice. It was tough. … Experience playing together is valuable."
GIANTS: New York's defense wanted another shot at Green Bay and Aaron Rodgers after a last-second loss last month.
They got their wish.
Rodgers shredded the Giants for 449 yards and four touchdowns, winning the game 38-35 with a 68-yard drive in the final minute on Dec. 4.
That's ancient history. The Giants' defense has come a long way in five weeks.
The front four is dominating, led by All-Pro and former USF star Jason Pierre-Paul. Justin Tuck is finally healthy, and Osi Umenyiora has recovered from an ankle injury.
And they'll get their second shot at the Packers on Sunday.
"We wanted to see them again, but we realized in seeing them again it would be in a playoff game like this, so obviously we wanted to see them again," Tuck said.
There is a theory that by playing the then-undefeated Packers close, the Giants gained confidence.
"We didn't need that game to understand that," S Antrel Rolle said. "I think that's all within ourselves."