SANTA CLARA -- Having gone through it once, should make it better the second time.
That's the view of 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith, as it relates to playing with a brace on his left arm and for the 49ers' second trip to the NFC Championship Game in two seasons.
Smith sustained a partially torn left triceps tendon on Dec. 16 against the New England Patriots and missed the final 2 1/2 games of the regular season. He returned to play 53 of the 49ers' 58 defensive snaps Saturday in a 45-31 victory over the Green Bay Packers in an NFC semifinal game at Candlestick Park.
"It felt pretty good for the most part, just getting used to it, playing with it," Smith said of playing with a brace on his left elbow. "It should be even better this week after going through it and knowing how it felt and what to expect. So it should be even better this week."
Smith, who will undergo offseason surgery, realizes there is risk involved with playing. But he expects to continue to play while wearing a brace to help restrict the range of motion of his elbow and decrease the chances of causing further injury.
"It's like anything, if it's half-torn or whatever, it could tear the rest of the way," Smith said "I'm not really concerned about it. Just going to go out there and do the best I can and see what happens."
On his feeling about the brace, Smith said, "It's a love-hate relationship right now. It's doing it's job. It felt pretty strong. It should be a lot more comfortable."
But there is no mixed feelings for the 49ers defense.
Smith's presence on the field makes everybody better, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said.
"Any time he's out there you have to account for him, and almost have to put two guys on him," Willis said. "If you don't that's less a chance he has of winning. But even when you put two guys on him, he still has a chance to win."
The Packers double-teamed Smith on a lot of plays after initially running at him to test his ability to hold up physically. Smith said he was pleased with his performance "for the most part." Smith was credited with eight tackles, two quarterback hits on Aaron Rodgers and four quarterback pressures.
Smith said, "I think there's still a comfort level of getting used to it. Just mentally going out there and coming out of the game and knowing how it feels and felt during the game. I'll be a lot more comfortable this week."
Smith senses a different mindset this week than a year ago when the 49ers defeated the New Orleans Saints to advance to the NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants. The 49ers lost 20-17 to the Giants in overtime to fall short in their quest to reach the Super Bowl.
That loss provided inspiration throughout the offseason. And, now, the 49ers are back to the point where their season ended in disappointment a year ago.
"The majority of the guys in the locker room were here last year and felt the disappointment," Smith said. "We were so excited after winning the Saints game. I didn't feel the same 'We did it' and this and that after the Packers game.
"We beat a heck of a team in the Packers, so I feel like the whole team has a sense of there's more to this thing than just getting to this game. As a whole team, top to bottom and coaching staff, we're better prepared to handle it."