SANTA CLARA, Calif. | The San Francisco 49ers' defense is that much more stingy with Justin Smith on the field.
Anyone in his own locker room or elsewhere will emphatically say as much. So, perhaps the most important part of San Francisco securing a first-round playoff bye is the chance to get the defensive menace back for its playoff opener.
"The Cowboy," as the Midwesterner is so respectfully referred to by coaches and teammates, is nursing a partially torn left triceps muscle. It sidelined him for the final two regular-season games with the NFC West champion Niners (11-4-1). Coach Jim Harbaugh's hope — and the one of everybody in the Bay Area, for that matter — is that an extra week before the NFC divisional playoffs will do plenty to heal the lineman for what San Francisco expects to be a special postseason run all the way to the Super Bowl.
Whether or not the Niners have Smith will determine a lot in how far the franchise goes after last year's near miss in overtime of the NFC championship game against eventual champion New York.
"All I have to say to that is saddle up. He's coming," said Ricky Jean Francois, who started in Smith's place the last two games. "He's got his horse. He got a thoroughbred. He's coming."
That certainly seemed to be the case Thursday, when the team returned to practice following a three-day break. Smith went through position drills sporting a bulky black brace on his troublesome arm — but was in a regular white jersey, not a no-contact black uniform.
"It couldn't hurt anything," Smith said of the extra time. "We'll see how it is and go from there. It felt good for what we did today. We really haven't played or done anything yet. Hopefully they'll run right at me and we'll find out quick."
The pass rush lacks without Smith. So does linebacker Aldon Smith, who went the final three games without a sack to finish with 19 ½ and three shy of Michael Strahan's single-season record.
Even the lowly Arizona Cardinals picked on the right side of the 49ers' fearsome defensive line at every opportunity in the regular-season finale with Smith missing.
Harbaugh, who wasn't scheduled to be available to the media again until Sunday at the earliest, said this past Monday that Smith had made "significant progress," and the coach remained hopeful of getting him back for the playoffs.
Tight end Vernon Davis is among those willing Smith to get back to his former dominant self. Davis liked the new red NFC West champion hat he pulled on last Sunday night just fine. But he also pointed at his ring finger, where there's a vacant spot waiting for a Super Bowl bauble. He said that, too.
Yes, the 49ers have their minds on much bigger souvenirs for this season.
"It feels great. It'll be better when I get this, though," Davis said, looking down at his empty finger. "It's like we get a whole other opportunity to try it again. Last year we got two shots to get there, and we failed in the second one. Now, we've got it on the tip of our fingers again. We've just got to go grab it."
From the moment last year ended in frustrating fashion, San Francisco's focus turned to making up for the missed opportunity.
"Hey, doing things the second time around, we've got better weapons, we've got a better plan," Davis said. "All we have to do is go get it."
The 49ers have been super motivated to take the next step this time. Many of the men in the locker room endured through the losing pre-Harbaugh and know these chances are rare.
Linebacker Patrick Willis remembers how bleak things were late in the season for so many years before San Francisco ended a stretch of eight seasons without a playoff berth or winning record.
"I remember those first four years being of being here and some guys longer than that, and what it felt like," Willis said. "This time of the year you (would) just be playing for pride and playing to go into the offseason to feel better. And now with these last two seasons to be playing for something, it's a blessing. ... Our ultimate goal was to make it to the Super Bowl, and win that. And that's still ahead of us. It's going to be a tough road. But we like it tough."
It became much less tough when the Niners earned the NFC's No. 2 seed thanks to Minnesota's victory over Green Bay.
Harbaugh's Niners made it this far despite a quarterback switch that could have caused a rift in the locker room. While the demoted Alex Smith would love to be out there, he supports starter Colin Kaepernick and his teammates.
"I'm loving what's going on," said Smith, the backup quarterback who last season led the 49ers so close to the Super Bowl. "We've got such a great group of guys. To win the division — back-to-back division champs — and to get the bye right now, No. 2 seed in the NFC, it's a great situation."
Willis has been quick to speak up about realizing what's at stake.
"I think with anything you have to take advantage of the opportunity that you have right now and before you," Willis said. "And I know our guys will."
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