Then again, practically no one had envisioned the San Francisco 49ers being simply one win away from their first Super Bowl appearance in 17 years prior to the start of this season.
Pegged by a majority of prognosticators to maintain the also-ran status the once-glorious franchise had been languishing in for most of the past decade, the 49ers shocked the NFL world by winning 13 regular-season games and earning the No. 2 seed for the NFC Playoffs in a swift and sudden turnaround under rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh.
The unexpected success continued in the postseason, with San Francisco ousting favored New Orleans in last weekend's Divisional Round to advance to the NFC Championship for the first time since 1997. Prior to this year's breakthrough, the Niners last reached the playoffs in 2002.
San Francisco earned a spot in Sunday's conference title bout with a thrilling 36-32 triumph over the high-powered Saints in which the two teams traded the lead four times in the final four-plus minutes. The 49ers trailed by three points with 1:37 left before quarterback Alex Smith directed a seven-play, 85- yard drive capped by a dramatic 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Vernon Davis with a mere nine seconds remaining on the clock.
"I can't remember winning a game in such spectacular fashion as this one," said Harbaugh, who garnered the nickname "Captain Comeback" during a 14-year playing career as a quarterback.
The victory improved the 49ers to 8-1 at Candlestick Park in Harbaugh's sensational debut, which includes a hard-fought 27-20 verdict over the Giants back on Nov. 13. That loss started a midseason downward spiral for New York in which the team dropped five of six outings to enter the final two weeks with an uninspiring 7-7 record and its playoff hopes on shaky ground.
The Giants rebounded with pivotal wins over both the crosstown-rival Jets and Dallas to capture the NFC East and the conference's fourth seed, then delivered an emphatic 24-2 drubbing of Atlanta in the opening round of the playoffs before stunning the defending world champion Green Bay Packers by a 37-20 count this past Sunday at Lambeau Field.
Quarterback Eli Manning tossed three touchdown passes for a third consecutive week and finished with 330 yards to pace New York offensively, while a resurgent defense forced four turnovers out of the normally-prudent Packers and sacked Green Bay triggerman Aaron Rodgers four times.
"I think we are a team that is ascending," Giants defensive end Justin Tuck remarked. "Obviously the last couple of weeks we have played pretty well in just about every phase of the game. It's going to be a really good game, but momentum for us right now is sky high."
Harbaugh agreed with Tuck's assessment.
"I think they're a healthier team than when we played them in November," he said. "This is a Super Bowl contending team. They don't make mistakes and turn the ball over to you. They're the opposite of that. They're an opportunistic football team, they're a hard-working football team, really at every position group."
Those same words could be used to describe the 49ers, who led the entire NFL with a plus-28 turnover margin over the course of the regular season and came up with five takeaways that were instrumental to their elimination of the Saints.
San Francisco will be aiming for its first Super Bowl trip since the 1994 season and can become the NFC's 11th different representative in the last 11 years with a win on Sunday. The Giants claimed the 2007 conference crown after a memorable 23-20 overtime besting of Green Bay in that season's title game and are 4-0 all-time in the NFC Championship.