Year-long journey reaches conclusion for 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII
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NEW ORLEANS -- Defensive lineman Justin Smith spoke with earnest passion about what the San Francisco 49ers were capable of accomplishing this season.

The 12th-year veteran had never seen this kind of opportunity to be on a team that could achieve greatness. All he saw standing between the 49ers and a Super Bowl title was a lot of hard work.

"I think this year we feel if we put everything together and work the way we need to work, hopefully, we can accomplish our goal," Smith said. "Let's go out and try to hammer this thing home."

The hammer comes out Sunday afternoon at 3:30 p.m., when the 49ers play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII at the Superdome.

[RELATED: Matchup to watch No. 4 -- Smith vs. Osemele]

Smith made those remarks in June, at the conclusion of the 49ers' mandatory minicamp. And the pain of the team's overtime loss in the NFC Championship Game to the New York Giants was still fresh in the minds of Smith and nearly everybody who attended the offseason workouts.

The 49ers' front office did its part in the offseason. The 49ers' defense remained intact, as outside linebackers Ahmad Brooks and cornerback Carlos Rogers, both scheduled free agents, were re-signed to multi-year extensions.

And coach Jim Harbaugh and his staff pushed the right buttons with the offseason decision to move offensive tackle Alex Boone to right guard to fill a glaring need on offense.

[RELATED: Matchup to watch No. 6 -- Boone vs. Ngata]

The final brush stroke took place Nov. 28, when Harbaugh made it official: Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick replaced Alex Smith, who was playing at the best level of his career but lost his grasp on the starting job two weeks earlier due to a concussion.

Kaepernick stepped into the lineup, and the 49ers' offense became more dangerous while maintaining the elements at which Smith excelled. Kaepernick threw only four interceptions in nine starts, including two playoff victories. And each time, he responded with a touchdown drive the next time the 49ers got their hands on the ball.

Kaepernick was at the controls of a 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game two weeks ago, a game in which the 49ers rallied from a 17-point deficit. In the playoffs, Kaepernick has led the 49ers with his prodigious arm, running ability and poise.

"There is something about him that no matter what happens he always keeps his composure," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. "That is what I like about him. He is always under control, no matter what. It's a great thing."

Among starting quarterbacks, only Jeff Hostetler (New York Giants, 1990) and Vince Ferragamo (Los Angles Rams, 1979) have fewer NFL starts entering a Super Bowl.

Kaepernick has posted a 105.9 passer rating in the postseason, which is the fifth-highest mark in NFL history. And with 202 rushing yards, he is just 7 yards shy of Steve McNair's 1999 postseason record for a quarterback.

Kaepernick took no significant snaps for the 49ers as a rookie, as the team went 13-3 in the regular season and advanced to the NFC Championship Game. The 49ers were off to a 6-2 record this season when Kaepernick was summoned to replace the injured Smith.

"It was tough watching this team do well and not being able to contribute," Kaepernick said. "For me, what kept me going was the fact that I might get an opportunity to get out there. When I did, I need to take advantage of it. I think that is the biggest thing."

Kaepernick will be the center of attention on Sunday, as his public profile has exploded in recent weeks. Whether he was out at dinner in New Orleans with family or surrounded by family and friends of 49ers players at the team's walk-through practice Saturday at the Superdome, Kaepernick is quickly turning into the face of the team.

Harbaugh's mantra is "The team, the team, the team." And it was the entire team that bonded together to drive the 49ers to the franchise's sixth Super Bowl appearance.

The season-ending loss to the eventual Super Bowl champions last season provided fuel for the entire team through the spring and summer months when the 49ers got near-perfect attendance in their offseason training program.

Harbaugh has often said that there is no "unfinished business" for his team, only "new business." But there is also no denying the 49ers' crushing loss of last season fueled a determined effort for months in the weight room, practice field, as well as in meetings and film study.

Justin Smith spoke to many of his teammates about the opportunity for the 49ers to rebound and go all the way.

"I've never been that close in my life," Smith said. "You don't think it's over or your window is closed or anything like that, just personally speaking, and you feel it kind of shutting," Smith said. "I was just like, 'Damn, that was it.' To be back in the NFC Championship Game, I don't think our team took it as much for granted how hard it is to get there. Getting to the Super Bowl, now, you have to take advantage of it."

Running backs coach Tom Rathman, who won two Super Bowl rings with the 49ers as a fullback, was able to lend some perspective to the team through his experiences.

After all, three of the 49ers' five Super Bowl titles came the season after difficult playoff losses, including two defeats in the NFC Championship Game.

"I've talked to Tom Rathman, and he told me there were times that they went to the NFC Championship Game and lost," 49ers receiver Michael Crabtree said. "It's an experience to go through. You feel it.

"We were at the same spot (against Atlanta), and I couldn't see us losing. We're one step further right now, and we have to make it happen."

In a game that features the historical matchup of brothers Jim and John Harbaugh on the sideline, the teams feature another similarity.

[MAIOCCO: Harbaugh brothers would work for each other]

The 49ers and Ravens both had journeys that stopped one game short of the Super Bowl last season. The Ravens missed a short field goal at the end of regulation that would have sent their AFC Championship Game against the New England Patriots into overtime.

Although it might seem like a distant memory now, the 49ers still find inspiration from the near-miss of last season. And they have reached the point that Justin Smith envisioned when he emphasized the importance of building and preparing, many months before the 49ers would even take the field for the 2012 season.

Smith sustained a partially torn left triceps tendon late in the regular season that threatened to end his season. But he continues to play. He will require surgery in the days after the Super Bowl. After what he experienced last season, there was no way he was going to miss this.

"Yeah, it's kind of like someone is pulling the rug out from underneath you," Justin Smith said. "You're like, 'We were so close.' We came up short. And we're back here. We just have to go take care of business now."