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Paul Sakuma, Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh gestures during a news conference at 49ers NFL football headquarters in Santa Clara, Calif., Monday, Jan. 9, 2012.

SANTA CLARA, Calif. — The offense was stagnant, Alex Smith was ineffective and the offensive line was completely overmatched.

Few would have thought that the San Francisco 49ers team that opened the Jim Harbaugh era with an exhibition dud at New Orleans would be playing the Saints five months later with a spot in the NFC championship on the line.

There were few signs of the remarkable turnaround Harbaugh has engineered in San Francisco in that 24-3 loss at the Superdome. The focus then was mostly on how it looked like the same old 49ers who had gone eight straight seasons without a winning record or a playoff berth.

Now not only are the 49ers back in the playoffs, they will host the Saints on Saturday.