The 49ers worked hard to get the No. 2 seed so they could rest up for the second round of the playoffs.
But they also realized that getting the New Orleans Saints at home on the Candlestick Park grass was essential.
The Saints are 9-0 on the Superdome turf this season, including a playoff victory over the Detroit Lions last Saturday. They are only 5-3 on the road.
In their home games, the Saints outscored their opponents 374-171 (41.6-19 on average). That spread drops considerably in road games, where they have outscored their opponents 218-196 (27.3-24.5).
Coach Jim Harbaugh is wise enough to keep under wraps just how much of an edge playing at home gives his team, but he isn't shying away from the fact his players are ready to defend their turf.
"It's an advantage," Harbaugh said. "They worked very hard for it. They earned it. And they get the benefit of that."
Niners defensive coordinator Vic Fangio spent nine seasons coaching with the Saints. He said too much is made of their home-field advantage.
"We used to hear that when I was there," Fangio said. "And we went up in December one year and played Buffalo when they were in the middle of all their Super Bowl runs, and that year we were kind of an average team. ... We went up and beat them in a snowstorm. So, I don't put any credence in that."
Sproles validated that faith by setting an NFL record this season with 2,696 all-purpose yards -- 603 rushing, 710 receiving, 1,089 on kick returns and 294 on punt returns.
"He's a special player," Fangio said. "It's almost as if, I can't believe they got him for the cheap price that they got him for replacing Reggie Bush. If it was the NBA, the commissioner might have stepped in and stopped that move."
The Saints signed Sproles on the recommendation of quarterback Drew Brees, who was with Sproles for one season with the San Diego Chargers.
Niners linebacker Patrick Willis said Sproles presents quite a challenge, even though Sproles stands only 5-feet-6 and weighs 190.
"For a guy his size, he does it all. He runs in between the tackles, outside, catches the ball really well," Willis said. "He's a complete running back. We're going to have to know where he is at all times."
"The thing I wanted to know was, did he want to start? Did he want to be in the fire or did he want to wear the ball cap backwards and back up somewhere?" Harbaugh said.
Smith informed Harbaugh that he wasn't fazed by the way things went the previous six seasons and that he was eager for another shot.
Harbaugh called Smith's resolve "somewhere between rare and extinct. Not just for football players but just about anybody. Most guys would say, 'To heck with that, I've had enough, time for a fresh start somewhere else.' I felt I could really work with that kid. That was special."
Walker's next examination is Monday, at which time he hopes to be cleared to resume full-team drills. He also expects to play in the NFC Championship game.
"I'm confident in them that they're going to get this W, so I can have the opportunity to play in the playoffs," Walker said. "I've been here for six years and haven't had a chance to be in the postseason."
Wide receivers Ted Ginn Jr. (ankle) and Kyle Williams (concussion), defensive lineman Ray McDonald (hamstring) and cornerback Chris Culliver (knee) were limited at practice for the second straight day.
Ginn said he is 100 percent and ready to play Saturday after missing the past two games. McDonald said he is good to go, as well.