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"Not where you'd like to be," Harbaugh admitted.

He is correct, however, about the 49ers' fate being in their hands regarding the playoffs. They own the second wild card spot and can win out to clinch the postseason.

But in terms of what the 49ers really are — and whether they are going to be relevant in the Super Bowl conversation — we'll discover that definitively on Sunday when they play the Seahawks at Candlestick Park.

Win or lose, the 49ers are not likely to finish as division champions. Seattle can retain the NFC West lead even with a defeat at Candlestick. And the Seahawks have a cake schedule the rest of the way (at New York Giants, home against Arizona and St. Louis).

But if the 49ers do win Sunday, it will be a marker and a statement and a big fat Facebook post on the "Friends Of Vince Lombardi Trophy" page.

Beating the Seahawks would prove that the 49ers belong in the Super Bowl conversation. And it would show that they have made meaningful strides since being thumped, 29-3, in Seattle back on Sept. 15.

"Validation. We want to play well," Harbaugh said.

They need to play well for the holidays, basically. History shows that teams with the best won-lost records in the regular season do not always reach the Super Bowl. Teams that are playing the best in December are a better bet. In 2010, Green Bay won the game as an NFC wild-card team on the uptick. Baltimore was the AFC's fourth seed last year when it beat the second-seeded 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII.

When you sit down to watch a Seahawks-49ers game over the past few years, you know what you're going to see. Both teams believe they can outmuscle opponents. So when they meet, they try to pound the snot out of each other. And the one who collects the most snot gets the victory. Too graphic an image? Maybe you haven't cued up the video.

For example, the biggest play of last season's 42-13 rout of the 49ers in Seattle occurred in the first quarter when Seahawks safety Kam Chancellor viciously slammed into 49ers tight end Vernon Davis' chest as he attempted a sideline catch while in a vulnerable position. Chancellor was penalized for unnecessary roughness but Davis left the game with a concussion. With one of their most indestructible players out, the 49ers weren't the same team.

Likewise, last season when the Seahawks lost by a score of 13-9 at Candlestick, the 49ers crusher was a 10-play touchdown drive in the third quarter when running backs Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter handled the ball on eight of the 10 plays and chewed up yardage.

And we all saw what happened in Week 2 of this season when the Seahawks fed off their industrial-strength-noisy home crowd to sack 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick three times, hassle him into three interceptions and win by 26 points.

Have the teams really changed much since that September night?

"I'm sure they have," Harbaugh said. "I'm not prepared to say what those changes are yet."

Even so, Harbaugh was in a generally relaxed mood Monday, perhaps because his father is in town — Jim even joked that his dad was questioning the 49ers' rushing game strategy — and because the team's passing attack has shown growth spurts over the last two weeks. Son and dad were also planning to watch the Seahawks-Saints game on Monday Night Football together, although on monitors at the team facility rather than in the Harbaugh living room.

It's surely an edge for the 49ers that the Seahawks must play Sunday's game on short rest after a plane ride, because it will give Seattle's bruises one less day of rest before another physically demanding game.

Here's what is not an edge for the 49ers: Knee injuries to their two best offensive linemen, Joe Staley and Mike Iupati, could keep both men out of Sunday's game. That's not an ideal situation in a contest of corporeal might. The last five 49ers-Seahawks games have been won by the team that accumulates the most rushing yards.

It's possible that Kaepernick could now pick up the slack if the 49ers' rushing game stalls. But in his two games as a starter against Seattle, he's thrown one touchdown pass and four interceptions. Best not to put the game on his shoulders.

There will be plenty of time to discuss all this, of course, as the week progresses. Harbaugh and his staff are clearly relishing the thought of another game against Pete Carroll and his staff. The 49ers coach even waxed philosophical about the meaning of it all, when a reporter wondered if too much emphasis was being placed on Sunday's game.

"You could probably say that for every game we play, there's too much emphasis," Harbaugh mused. "I guess you could make the societal argument: Do we put too much emphasis on these games? I don't know about the rest of society, but I know we do."

That's pretty deep. And if you are what the rest of society says you are, then the 49ers are a team that needs to prove something Sunday.