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.