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SANTA CLARA — The 49ers aren't all that good. The Giants might be worse. Both teams are lucky to be where they are — paired in the NFC championship game, each of them one step away from the Super Bowl. Both are deeply flawed, and we can think of several other NFC teams that would be worthier contestants.

Nobody actually believes any of that, of course. But hey, why mess with the message at this point? These guys are on a roll.

"We know that they put a question mark on us at the beginning of the season, but that's what guided us forward through it," Giants wide receiver Hakeem Nicks said last week.

"When you doubt us, we look forward to stepping up to the challenge, and I feel like we've been doing that all season."

Three-thousand miles away, 49ers right tackle Anthony Davis was in perfect harmony with Nicks.

"I feel like they doubt us every week, and we love it," Davis said.

Welcome to the Underdog Bowl, where both teams feel overlooked, underrated and disrespected. Haters gonna hate — and the 49ers and Giants lap it up like energy drinks.

Ask Trent Dilfer. The ESPN analyst and former NFL quarterback (including a final season with the 49ers) was one of the few voices telling us in August that Jim Harbaugh's team had a chance to be something special. The Niners didn't thank Dilfer. They scolded him.

"Literally, Alex just pulled me aside and said, &‘Will you stop saying good things about us?'

Because they wanted that chip on their shoulder," Dilfer said. "They didn't want anybody to believe in them. They wanted everybody to disrespect them. I think that bunker mentality is a huge part of what teams use as a rallying cry to make this run. ... Joe Staley told me, &‘Hey, shut up, quit saying good things about us. We don't want people to know how good we are.'"

It did take most of us a while to figure it out. Coming off a 6-10 campaign, with a rookie head coach and no offseason workouts to implement his system, the 49ers opened the regular season as 50-1 long shots to win the Super Bowl. They weren't expected to win at Philadelphia in Week 4, or at Detroit in Week 6. They did.

But even as San Francisco's record improved to 7-1, 8-1, 9-1, the success was tempered by skepticism from outside.

"We all watch TV," running back Anthony Dixon said. "And we see things some people say. We try not to talk about it, but it definitely motivated us, because we wanted to show the world that we got something good over here as well — as well as the Eagles and the Cowboys and all the other teams they talked about when the season started."

The Giants' plight was a little different. They were considered a solid team, if not a favorite, when the season started. But most of the country wrote them off during a four-game losing streak in November and early December, a skid that started at Candlestick Park in Week 10. Commentators pounced on New York's inconsistent defense and feeble rushing attack, and it galvanized the locker room.

"Even when the team was doing bad, the team didn't believe it was as bad as it was playing, or as bad as people were saying," said Carl Banks, the former linebacker who now analyzes games for the Giants radio network. "They knew that because of the circumstances, things would get better. They'll say, &‘We were the only guys who believed in us.'"

This approach is old hat for the Giants, and especially for their coach, Tom Coughlin, who has made a career out of unexpected postseason runs. He did it back in 1996, leading Jacksonville to an upset of heavily favored Denver in an AFC divisional playoff — in the Jaguars' second year of existence. More memorably, he did it with the 2007 Giants, a team that won three road playoff games before stunning unbeaten New England in the Super Bowl.

Before their most recent shocker — a victory at top-seeded Green Bay last Sunday — someone asked Coughlin about being a playoff underdog.

"I haven't thought about that, to be honest with you, but yes, we are the team that is ranked lower than the other teams right now," Coughlin said. "Thanks for mentioning that. I'll use that."

You can bet he has. And you can be sure Harbaugh has, too. They've used the us-against-the world mentality to get this far, don't expect them to abandon it now.

"Even when teams are finally getting their credit, you manufacture it," said former Patriots linebacker Tedy Bruschi, also with ESPN now. "Players will try their best to manufacture it because it's the greatest motivator a player, a unit or a team can have is when you tell yourselves, &‘Nobody expects us to do it, and nobody wants us to do it, no one thinks we can do it, so let's go prove everyone wrong.' We had some incredible win streaks in New England, but we would still manufacture that chip-on-your-shoulder card that everyone is disrespecting you, just because you feel like you play best when you feel like you're doubted."

Expect the 49ers and Giants to adopt a similar mentality. They've had chips on their shoulders all season long. This is no time to repair the chip.

"We still have it," Niners safety Donte Whitner said. "We still have it, because people still doubt us. People doubted us last week, we were underdogs at home (against the Saints).

People are gonna doubt us this week. So it's no different. ... The chip won't come off our shoulder until we ultimately get the goal that we want, and that's the Super Bowl."

That's probably what it will take for either of these squads to lighten up. Until then, they should produce a pretty entertaining game today — and may the least respected team win.

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.