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San Francisco 49ers: Win or lose, they're back

San Francisco 49ers, after a decade of irrelevance, are in the NFC championship game, on the brink of the Super Bowl. Welcome back, San Francisco 49ers.

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San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith (11) passes against the New Orleans Saints in the fourth quarter of an NFL divisional playoff game in San Francisco. The 49ers face the New York Giants in the NFC championship game Sunday.

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP

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This playoff season seems bent on chucking every story line the NFL had going in 2011.

The Packers’ perfect season? Out. Tebow magic? Done, for now. The firing of Tom Coughlin?  We can definitely count that out, at least for another year (New York fans have a short memory, but beating the mighty Packers in Lambeau field at least ensures the Giants head coach gets to show up for work again in August).  Peyton Manning’s position at the top of the Manning hierarchy?  Even that’s in question, as a slew of analysts are now suggesting that little brother Eli might have been the best Manning all along.

Meanwhile, the barely noticed San Francisco 49ers had their best season in over a decade and emerged victorious from perhaps the best game of the playoffs against the Saints. The team by the bay has made it to the NFC championship, one win away from the Super Bowl.

Safe to say, no one really saw the 49ers coming. Why would they? San Francisco hadn’t had a winning record since 2002. Their biggest roster change from 2010’s 6-10 season was at head coach. Jim Harbaugh was an NFL coaching rookie, too, fresh from Stanford University. Given the team he was inheriting, a “rebuilding year” would have been reasonable.

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