SANTA CLARA, Calif. — Colin Kaepernick and the San Francisco 49ers have conquered the bitter cold of Green Bay and the travails of a cross-country flight to Carolina.
Now they face their toughest test yet to get back to the Super Bowl: the deafening noise of Seattle’s 12th man home crowd and that swarming Seahawks defense that thoroughly shut down the reigning NFC champion Niners in Week 2.
“Our team has been in a lot of good primers, been through a lot of situations, been through tough environments, whether it be weather or opposing stadiums,” coach Jim Harbaugh said Monday. “This team has been in a lot of situations. Been everywhere, man. Just like something from a Johnny Cash song, ‘We’ve been everywhere man.’”
In what has emerged as arguably the NFL’s best rivalry, San Francisco is on an impressive roll riding an eight-game winning streak as it returns to the Pacific Northwest for Sunday’s NFC title game — the 49ers’ third in as many years.
It’s the trip everyone has envisioned for months now since it became clear Seattle would win the NFC West and secure the No. 1 seed.
“Long story short: They know us, we know them,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “We got to go there. We all know the history. But this is the Super Bowl. Everything is on the line. That says it all. We’re ready. That’s all it comes down to.”
The 49ers (14-4) have committed seven turnovers and been outscored 71-16 in their last two trips to Seattle, including an embarrassing 29-3 defeat in September.
The memory of those visits stings.
Yet a lot has changed in four months since San Francisco last traveled some 800 miles up the Pacific Coast to face its archrival, such as the 49ers’ 19-17 victory against the Seahawks last month at Candlestick Park. That game showed this team it can go back to Seattle this time and leave with a different result even if it thunders and rains all afternoon.
“Oh, man, this is everything. We’ve worked hard,” linebacker Ahmad Brooks said. “Now we need to capitalize on what we’ve been doing all year.”
Be prepared from some high-octane trash talking from both sides — and even from that raucous, tremor-causing home crowd. Seattle’s secondary loves to chirp, and 49ers wideout Anquan Boldin has been talking after the play at any chance in recent weeks.
“It’s playoff football. It gets chippy between two great teams,” right guard Alex Boone said. “I wouldn’t expect anything less.”
Kaepernick improved to 4-1 in the postseason — 3-0 on the road — with Sunday’s 23-10 victory at Carolina, while Harbaugh became the first coach since the NFL’s 1970 merger to lead his team to the NFC title game in each of his first three years.
Kaepernick will look to bounce back from a forgettable September performance at CenturyLink Field.
San Francisco lost two fumbles and Kaepernick threw three interceptions in Week 2. On Dec. 23, 2012, a 42-13 Seattle home win, Kaepernick had an interception and the Niners lost a fumble.
“We’re a different team than we were the first time we played them up there,” Kaepernick said. “We have a lot of key playmakers back and we’re ready to go.”
Three of those are Boldin, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. The addition of Crabtree to the mix since his Dec. 1 return from a six-month recovery from Achilles tendon surgery has changed San Francisco’s offense and passing game.
Frank Gore’s ability to run the 49ers right back to a second straight Super Bowl will play a big part in the outcome Sunday, too. He rushed for 84 yards on 17 carries facing a Carolina front seven among the best in football Sunday, but was held to 16 yards on nine carries at Seattle on Sept. 15.
Safety Donte Whitner speaks of the need to “take it away from them” in Seattle, where the Seahawks opened as 3-point favorites and the line moved to 3 ½ points Monday.
“We don’t want it to end for us. We understand that we have to go up there in a hostile environment with a really good football team and do what a lot of people probably aren’t going to pick us to do,” Whitner said. “That’s OK with us. We understand what we have to do.”
Notes: Harbaugh said the medical staff was reviewing the MRI results on FB Will Tukuafu’s injured left knee, but didn’t have an update. “I’m encouraged how he’s moving around,” Harbaugh said. “We’ll have more information on that.”... Harbaugh’s grandfather, Joe Cipiti, died Sunday morning in Ohio. Harbaugh won’t make the memorial service Friday, saying that’s “a bit of a crushing blow there.”
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org