The San Francisco 49ers looked like Super Bowl contenders with their Week 1 victory over the Green Bay Packers.
Who would have thought they would have such a different look heading into their first championship game since capping the 1994 campaign with a victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. That win saw Steve Young guide the 49ers to their fifth Super Bowl win, successfully carrying the torch from Hall of Famer Joe Montana.
Heck, the 49ers don't even mirror the team last season that narrowly lost to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship Game.
It was Alex Smith who guided the Niners to the brink of the Super Bowl last season and to the 30-22 triumph over the Packers in Week 1, throwing a pair of touchdown passes while completing 20-of-26 pass attempts.
It was a sign of things to come under Smith, who played it safe and efficient under center this season. He completed 70 percent of his passes with 13 touchdown passes to five interceptions prior to suffering a concussion versus the St. Louis Rams on Nov. 11, going 6-2 in the eight games he finished.
In stepped Colin Kaepernick, who helped the Niners hold on for a tie in that divisional meeting with the Rams.
He also held on to the starting job, ultimately replacing Smith under center even when the former No. 1 returned to health following his head injury.
And so the 49ers' offense took on a new look, going from a unit that thrived on not making mistakes while a stifling defense wore out opposing teams to one that could rip off a big play at any moment thanks to Kaepernick's willingness to take more chances.
And not just with his arm. In his seven starts, which produced a 5-2 mark, Kaepernick threw for more than 250 yards just once, but kept defenses on their heels due to his ability to make plays with his legs. He ran for 415 yards on 63 carries in the regular season, adding five rushing touchdowns to the 10 he completed to receivers.
"Colin's just a very, very intense competitor," said offensive coordinator Greg Roman. "And we saw that even when he wasn't the 'starter.' He's very focused. He's got the ability to draw some really intense focus. And that's something I love in a quarterback."
Never were the former second-round pick's wheels on display more than a rematch with the Packers in the divisional round of the playoffs, when he rushed for a pair of touchdowns and set an NFL single-game record (regular season or playoffs) with 181 yards in just his eight career start.
His first rushing score came on a 20-yard scamper one drive after he had an interception returned 52 yards for a score, while his quarterback club-record 56-yard touchdown run in the third quarter started a 21-0 run that helped vault San Francisco to a 45-31 win.
"What impresses me is that he is a young guy, who started half of the season," running back Frank Gore said of his quarterback. "When things go wrong he stays calm. Defenses just don't know what they're going to get from him. He can run, throw, block. He can do whatever."
In all, the Niners set a new single-game postseason franchise record versus the Packers with 579 yards of offense, 323 of that coming on the ground.
And so the gamble made by 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, one that could have blown up and perhaps destroyed the team from the inside out, instead went as smooth as could have been hoped. Not only did Kaepernick succeed, making Harbaugh look like a genius, but Smith has been the perfect support system, praising Kaepernick and not complaining about the raw deal he got.
"It means a lot. I think it really shows his character and the kind of man he is," Kaepernick said of Smith's role. "He's helped me through everything, from Week 1 till now."
Credit to Harbaugh, who made his bed with Kaepernick knowing that a slump by the young quarterback could send a lot of negative vibes his way.
"We did what we thought was best for the team. We did what we thought would give us the best chance to win games. That's my personality," said the coach.
Added Kaepernick, "I think both of us are very competitive. We want to do whatever it takes to win, so that is where the emotion and the excitement comes from."
The magic, though, looked to be running out the following week in San Francisco's second straight NFC Championship Game appearance, this time against the top-seeded Atlanta Falcons. The club found itself down 17-0 just six seconds into the second quarter and its feared defense was doing little to shut down the Atlanta passing game.
But, a new face in the backfield, rookie LaMichael James got the 49ers on the board with a 15-yard TD run and Kaepernick began hitting wide receiver Michael Crabtree and tight end Vernon Davis with completion after completion, including a four-yard scoring strike to Davis, to keep things moving.
The five-catch, 106-yard performance by Davis was a nice sight for Niners fans as the former Pro Bowler had largely become a non-factor since Kaepernick took over.
Gore carried the load in the second half versus the Falcons, scoring a pair of touchdowns in a 28-24 rally made possible after the defense shut out the Falcons in the second half.
That was the defense that had helped the 49ers to a second straight NFC West title by finishing second in the regular season in scoring defense (17.1 PPG) and third in total defense, giving up just 294.4 yards per game.
San Francisco entered the season with two of the top linebackers in all of football -- Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman -- but it was second-year pass- run specialist Aldon Smith who grab a bulk of the spotlight with his assault on quarterbacks and the Niners' record books.
Following a 14-sack rookie season, Smith opened his campaign with a sack versus the Packers and was a constant force all season. As teams tried to avoid the massive arms of Willis and the coverage of Dashon Goldson, Donte Whitner, Tarell Brown and company, Smith made quarterbacks pay for holding the ball.
The 2011 first-round pick notched 15 of his club single-season record 19 1/2 sacks over a seven-game span from Oct. 18-Dec. 9 and seemed to have Michael Strahan's single-season record in his sights before going without a sack over his last three regular season games.
"Not surprised at all," Bowman said of the success his fellow linebacker has had. "He was able to show us what he can do his first year. So, I was excited about it, actually, and glad to see him come out on top."
And on a defense defined by high-motor players -- see Willis and defensive lineman Justin Smith -- Aldon Smith saved perhaps his best game for the biggest spotlight: "Monday Night Football."
In a game that also happened to be Kaepernick's first career start on Nov. 19 versus the Chicago Bears, Smith was all over the field and set a "Monday Night Football" record with 5 1/2 sacks.
"Aldon has had a tremendous year for us and a tremendous two years for our football team," said Harbaugh. "The players and coaches have voted Aldon our most valuable player for this past year. I think that speaks volumes to the kind of impact that he has on our team."
Though Smith has also been held without a sack in San Francisco's two playoff games, he remains a key part of a defense that will look to outshine a Baltimore Ravens team that has forged its own defensive identity over the years.
Not that the 49ers are intimidated.
"(We are) physical and tough. It's hard to break us. We're going to fight to the end. We have a great team," said Gore.
That opinion could become fact on Sunday.