SANTA CLARA -- Jim Harbaugh sounded like a man at peace describing his "happy flight" home.
It began by chatting up his 49ers players. Then, while he was still all warm and tingly from the camaraderie, he took his seat and popped on the game film of the gritty win at Green Bay. Occasionally, he paused to watch other highlights on the in-flight television. Then he began prepping for the Carolina Panthers.
It was an NFL coach's version of a Calgon commercial.
"Just sitting there. Just me," Harbaugh said Monday, smiling as he reminisced. "Just as happy as I could possibly be."
These moments sound so special to Harbaugh. Perhaps because lately his team has a proclivity for heart-stoppers. The calm comes after the storm when your team lives on the edge as do the 49ers. They seem to love flirting with disappointment just long enough to drive supporters crazy -- until hot blood is boiling in frustration -- before coming through in the end.
Sunday's last-second NFC wild-card win over Green Bay was the latest in a growing trend for the 49ers: surviving. Four of their last five games have come down to the final plays, and all four ended with some game-winning magic.
This team has gotten so good at it that you feel disrespectful for ever doubting. You want to be mad at their stubborn refusal to put away teams when they have a chance. But how can you when they consistently send you off with such heightened glee?
"I would think the TV audience would be highly tuned in to 49er games," Harbaugh said. "They don't turn off their sets when they're watching the San Francisco 49ers. Must be very entertaining."
(In fact, Sunday's game was watched by nearly 50 million viewers, and Fox is claiming that's the largest audience for a wild-card playoff game on any network since at least 1988.)
As much as your heart would prefer they make it easier, the hard road to the Super Bowl isn't a bad way to go. The 49ers have proved time and again they have that special something when the pressure is the highest.
That wasn't always their forte this season. If they weren't blowing out teams, they were losing. Defeats to Indianapolis, Carolina and New Orleans were categorically unclutch.
Now, it seems the 49ers couldn't choke if they tried. Maybe this squad developed a resilience from those past heartbreaks. Or maybe this is just a trait of a Harbaugh team -- pressure junkies who live for tension and prefer wins picked from the back pocket of defeat.
If this is a staple component of 49ers football under Harbaugh, that bodes well for this season and those to come. December and January in the NFL is all about being clutch. You won't win every game, but teams with players who thrive in tight games tend to become mainstays atop the league.
It can be irritating having to weather your team's bend-but-don't-break performances, especially if you believe the 49ers have the talent to dominate most teams. But Harbaugh seems to enjoy fingers with no nails. He takes pride in the sheer will and execution these types of victories require.
After all, gold is tested in fire.
"I think our team's very confident they have players that are going to make plays," Harbaugh said. "They know the defensive line is going to push the pocket. They have defensive backs that get the pass breakup. Linebackers that are going to tackle. A quarterback that's going to make the throw when the throw needs to be made, or a play. A running back who's going to get the first down when it's third-and-3. An offensive line that's going to protect when they have to do it. Receivers that are going to make the catch when the catch needs to be made. ... And a kicker that's going to make the kick."
This season's late-game heroics began Dec. 8 against Seattle at Candlestick Park. Frank Gore busted for a 51-yard run to set up the go-ahead field goal, and Eric Wright sealed it with an interception of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson.
Then, of course, there was NaVorro Bowman's wondrous interception to stave off Atlanta, clinching a playoff spot and giving Candlestick at least one last special memory.
The 49ers followed that with a thrilling win at Arizona after squandering a 17-point lead. Phil Dawson's winning 40-yard field goal was set up by an improbable 29-yard pass reception by rookie Quinton Patton.
Sunday topped them all. Dawson kicked a frozen ball through the outstretched arms of a Packers defender and between the uprights to send the 49ers to the next round. And that game-winner was set up by three could-hardly-watch third-down plays: the defense's third-and-goal stop to limit Green Bay to a field goal, Colin Kaepernick's 11-yard run on third-and-8 and Gore's eking out a first down to keep Aaron Rodgers from getting the ball back.
The 49ers again showed they can pull out any game against any team in a variety of ways. Bolstered by a confidence that somebody will make a play, they seem to welcome the angst and pressure of tight games.
And the happy flights after them.
49ers (13-4) at Carolina (12-4)
10:05 a.m. FOX
Harbaugh amazed by Kaepernick's running ability on a bad field. PAGE 4
Candlestick Park might get a reprieve -- for one more 49ers game. PAGE 4
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