GLENDALE, Ariz. -- There are two ways to look at the state of the 49ers as they enter the postseason. As winners of six straight who closed the regular season by gutting out two nail-biters. Or a team that sputtered across the finish line, made it, but leaking oil and making a weird sound.
The former gives you hope they're developing the resilience needed to rip off a Super Bowl run. The latter gives you hope because you know a tuneup and a fresh start is all that's needed.
Pick one. Tell yourself whichever works best for relieving anxiety over this next week. Because, either way, the 49ers need to take it up a notch. No doubt Sunday's performance, even though it ended in a 23-20 victory over the Arizona Cardinals, doesn't leave you beaming with confidence about Super Bowl prospects.
"We strung it out to the end, which we shouldn't have," quarterback Colin Kaepernick said after making a few clutch throws in the final minutes. "But we came out with the win, which was most important."
On top of that, the 49ers will have to go to Green Bay in the freezing cold and take down Aaron Rodgers and the Packers, riding high off their thrilling NFC North title-clinching win.
Certainly, winning six straight is the end result you want heading into the playoffs. It can even be argued such is all that matters.
That's the postseason mentality, win regardless of how, and the 49ers are deep into it. That's why they celebrated with sheer glee when Phil Dawson's 40-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired.
"We're showing fight," linebacker NaVorro Bowman said after totaling 10 tackles with an interception, a sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. "None of these games are going to be easy. ... I think as a team we're showing fight, we're showing grit. We're staying focused, on edge.
"Teams are going to make plays. This is the NFL. But the teams that prevail through adversity and not let things distract them, those are the great teams. We're doing that right now."
But there is the other side, the one that drives you nuts if you're pining for a return to the Super Bowl. Watching this team struggle for elongated stretches on both sides of the ball raises doubts about its ability to make this daunting run as the No. 5 seed.
For the second straight week, the 49ers blew a sizable lead. They looked dominant, jumping out to a 17-0 lead over the Cardinals in the first quarter. What you wanted to see was them put away Arizona, something they didn't do last week against Atlanta. What you wanted to see was for them to smell blood and turn it up a notch.
Instead, they seemed to let off the gas. The offense -- which started aggressively -- spiraled into an ineffective mess. During one stretch beginning in the second and extending into the fourth, the 49ers went eight straight drives without a score, half of them three-and-outs.
The defense started getting picked apart by Arizona's Carson Palmer, who threw for 407 yards and hurt San Francisco's secondary with multiple big plays, the biggest a 34-yard touchdown pass to Andre Roberts that tied the score at 17 late in the fourth quarter.
The defense eventually made enough stops to prevent a loss, most notably an incompletion on third-and-8 that forced the Cardinals to settle for the tying field goal with less than a minute remaining.
But it's that kind of leaky defense that had many faithful hoping for a loss, setting up a showdown with the NFC East champion instead of facing Rodgers. On what will probably amount to playing on a hockey rink.
"At this point, you don't care who you play," wide receiver Anquan Boldin said. "You're happy to be in the playoffs, and you look forward to whoever you have to play. At this point, all teams are good."
Can the 49ers win at Green Bay? Absolutely. Can they make a run and get back to the Super Bowl? The only team you could argue they can't beat is Seattle in the Northwest, and that's hardly impossible for this squad.
But there had better be another gear. Struggling to beat Atlanta at home and being outplayed most of the game at Arizona feels more like a decline from the momentum built off the home win over Seattle three weeks ago.
Fortunately for the 49ers, the playoffs are a new season, with new challenges and a new personality all its own. The real season, the one the Bay Area has been waiting for since the near-comeback in the Super Bowl, now begins.
What matters most is what's about to happen. That's what you can tell yourselves to pacify the growing concerns over the last couple of weeks.
"It's a new season, but the momentum definitely carries," said Kaepernick, who threw for 310 yards and two touchdowns. "We have to make sure we're on top of everything. Because it could be one-and-done."
No. 5 49ers
(12-4) at No. 4 Green Bay (8-7-1), 1:40 p.m. FOX
last season's playoff loss
to 49ers. PAGE 6