Are Niners now the Super Bowl favorite?

Jim Harbaugh isn't going to like this. But there's just no way the underdog role is going to work anymore. Not now. Maybe not ever again. His 49ers are favored to win Sunday's NFC championship game, as they should be, but now it goes much deeper than that. They're the most complete team still standing in the four-team Super Bowl tournament. And that fact alone could make them the team to beat.

While the Giants squawked in New York on Monday that they won't be denied now that they're on this little hot streak, it's the 49ers who truly are playing like the team of destiny. With the road to the Super Bowl now going through San Francisco for the first time since 1997, you can bet the Niners also are feeling like they won't be denied at home this Sunday, even if they know better than to say so in those particular terms.

Surely, the four teams left in the NFL's two conference championship games are among the handful of best in the league this year. But if anybody's crashing this party, it's the Giants. They had four more losses during the season than the team they're playing Sunday. They even allowed more points than they scored during the season. They're on a nice run at the right time, but just a month ago they were 7-7 and needing to win out just to make it to the postseason.

They are the only team that played on Wild-Card weekend still in the playoffs. That has worked for them in the past, and every year is different, but they aren't any favorite in this four-team field.

Over in the AFC, it's No. 1 vs. No. 2, the top-seeded New England Patriots at home and ready to slug it out with the Baltimore Ravens, clearly the cream of the crop in the American conference this season.

It's tough to ever bet against Tom Brady, and he is in that zone again, taking a team that is average around him to another level. But how many matchups would the Patriots actually win if they faced the 49ers? Based on this season, San Francisco would have the edge in a lot of areas. Brady probably would have to pull a Drew Brees or better to hold the Niners off.

One of San Francisco's three losses this year was to the Ravens, 16-6 in Baltimore on Thanksgiving night, the Niners' only loss by more than three points this season. But the 49ers went toe-to-toe with the Ravens despite all the circumstances working against them – playing on a short week, cross-country travel, yada yada yada – and they got some bad officiating calls that went against them that easily could have accounted for a 10-point swing.

Everybody knows about the Niners now. They won't be sneaking up on anybody. They have earned their respect.

But Sportsbooks everywhere on Monday had New England as the odds-on favorite to win Super Bowl XLVI. And the 49ers weren't even rated ahead of the Giants – most Sportsbooks had those two teams rated evenly to win the Super Bowl, meaning the odds-makers feel Sunday's NFC title game is a toss-up. The Niners are 2½-point favorites in that game, also an indication the odds setters feel this one's a tossup, since the home field at this stage of the playoffs usually is worth at least three points in the betting column.

Maybe Harbaugh can view that as another slight against his team, like the many he has perceived from all angles this season. But you know he believes the 49ers can beat anybody at this stage, and his team certainly has made believers of most everybody around them.

"I like our team," Harbaugh said Monday during his nearly 40-minute news conference during which he once again strayed away from hyperbole when referencing his team's emerging greatness. "I think we're a tough team. When we're prepared, when we have our focus and we fight like we did, shoot, every game this year, we're a darn tough team to beat."

Harbaugh admitted he has given thought to seeing his brother's team again this year – his older brother John is head coach of the Ravens – and wouldn't that be something, to see Har-Bowl II being played for the Lombardi trophy.

Would the 49ers be favored in that one to a team they've already lost to? Possibly not, because that game will be played on turf, just like the Ravens play on synthetic grass on their home field. It seems like there will always be some reason somebody can find to keep the Niners down.

Harbaugh knows what it means to be here. He made it to one conference championship game during his notable 15-year playing career, coming one play away from taking the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl. Harbaugh said on Monday that he thought he'd have more shots at the NFL's ultimate prize after that game. Another shot never came.

He knows what it means to be here, and you can make sure he is letting his players know.

Some of them know already.

"The opportunities are far and few between sometimes, and you got to make the most of it," said defensive end Justin Smith, an 11-year veteran who enjoyed his first career playoff victory on Saturday. "We're here right now and, as a team, we just have that mindset of, ‘Let's make the most if, go out and try to take it.'"

It's what the Niners did in their wild and memorable 36-32 victory over New Orleans in Saturday's NFC semifinal that got them to Final Four party.

In that great win, it was all three facets of the team picking up each other, with the offense finally doing its part when it was desperately called upon in the fourth quarter after New Orleans had taken its first lead.

If the Niners can continue to ball like that, will even these nearly-Super teams left really be able to beat them? To be sure, they no longer are anybody's underdog.

"It proves that we got a pretty good team here," Smith said. "We can go out and play with the best, and beat the best. We're going to have to do it again."

So will any team playing the 49ers the rest of the way. They won't call themselves favorites, and neither will the oddsmakers, which really only means the Niners have everybody right where they want them.


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