49ers' next goal: first-round bye in playoffs

  • San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Aldon Smith (99) celebrates his interception with free safety Dashon Goldson, right, in the third quarter an NFL football game against the New England Patriots in Foxborough, Mass., Sunday, Dec. 16, 2012. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

SANTA CLARA — The 49ers clinched a playoff berth with their impressive victory over the New England Patriots. In the process, they laid claim to being the team to beat in the quest for the Super Bowl.

The Sunday night matchup amounted to a Super Bowl preview in some circles. Jim Harbaugh conceded that the game carried added significance.

"It was obvious both teams desperately wanted to win the game," the 49ers coach said Monday. "It felt like both teams wanted to prove they were the better team."

As evidence, Harbaugh pointed out the hard hitting that started from the outset and lasted until the 49ers prevailed 41-34.

"Both teams really wanted it, to show that they were the better team," Harbaugh said. "It was a great game. It was an exciting game. Very competitive."

The 49ers gained a little breathing room in the battle for the NFC West title, with the Seattle Seahawks standing 1? games behind with two to play.

There also is the matter of securing one of the top two seeds in the NFC playoffs — and the first-round bye and home-field advantage that comes with that distinction. For now, the 49ers sit as the No.2 seed.

To that end, Harbaugh and his staff spent a chunk of their time on the plane ride back to the Bay Area breaking down tape and preparing for this Sunday night's game against the Seahawks.

What Harbaugh sees when watching tape is a team that has the resolve to withstand a 28-point flurry by the Patriots and persevere in the most trying circumstances.

"The pressure to perform is great in this league, at this level," Harbaugh said. "I credit that to we have excellent players who are kind of in the prime of their career. They're at the experienced height, but they're young, and they've been in those situations. They're young, experienced and kind of right in their prime."

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