For the 49ers, it's all about New Orleans -- times two.
Of course it is important for the 49ers to beat the Saints on Sunday at the Superdome, but that's only the partial focus.
Every calibrated word and recent moment of intrigue has shown that the 49ers already are fixed on the true hard target.
Super Bowl XLVII, Feb. 3 in New Orleans. Or bust.
That kind of long view takes confidence, it takes foresight, and I think it has been driven by the 49ers' sense that they have been good for the last year-and-a-half, but not quite good enough.
How else can you explain a quarterback drama that coach Jim Harbaugh created, fueled and refused to squelch all week?
Where is the logic in a 7-2-1 team moving to bench Alex Smith, a 28-year-old quarterback completing 70 percent of his passes, in favor of Colin Kaepernick, who has just one NFL start under his belt?
It only makes cognitive sense if you realize that Harbaugh and his staff are playing two-dimensional NFL chess here.
First, they want to win every game they play; and it seems clear that Harbaugh is beginning to believe that Kaepernick is his leading quarterback option to do that, especially with Smith still recently experiencing post-concussion symptoms.
Obviously, the 49ers want their best chance to beat the Saints and continue to firm up their NFC playoff positioning.
If Kaepernick starts, plays poorly and commits a rash of errors in his first
And if the 49ers' offense gets shut down by the Saints, it won't be difficult to flash back to last season's divisional playoff game against New Orleans, which was Smith's career apex.
Smith completed 24 of 42 attempts for 299 yards and three touchdowns and ran for a huge 28-yard score in the 49ers' 36-32 victory.
If the 49ers weren't quite good enough to win the Super Bowl with Smith last season, they were at least good enough to beat the Saints.
But I believe Kaepernick's performance against Chicago on Monday convinced Harbaugh that Kaepernick will do fine this week and every week.
Here's the bigger picture: Harbaugh and his staff would love to have a more dynamic offense that can power the 49ers though a bruising playoff slugfest.
The 49ers' offense under Smith has been dynamic at times since the start of last season, and it surely has been efficient.
But there were two key games -- both against the New York Giants -- in which the 49ers and Smith faltered, and I think they stuck in Harbaugh's mind.
My guess is that those two games, and the belief that the 49ers probably will have to go through the Giants to win the Super Bowl, set everything in motion.
Exhibit A: Last season's NFC Championship game, when Smith had a diminished receiving corps, completed 12 of 26 passes and failed to move the team after halftime, and the 49ers lost 20-17 in overtime.
Exhibit B: With a beefed up receiving corps this season, the 49ers' offense still got thrashed by the Giants in a devastating 26-3 loss.
In that Oct. 14 game, Smith completed 19 of 30 attempts for 200 yards with three interceptions, despite the additions of Randy Moss and Mario Manningham.
Maybe that game triggered the warning lights at 4949 Centennial. Was the offense with Smith too predictable against premium defenses? Why can't Smith get the ball to tight end Vernon Davis?
What happens if the 49ers face the Giants again in January and the Giants once again stack up against the run and short passing game?
In this context, Smith's 18-for-19 precision against Arizona two weeks after the Giants game didn't really register; the 49ers' staff is laser-locked on the bigger picture.
In this context, even Smith's great opening-week game in Green Bay probably is pushed to the margins.
The 49ers have a Super Bowl defense, solid offensive personnel and a coaching staff and front office that is ravenous for a title.
And that means they believe they are scheming to beat the Giants -- or another defense just as good -- in the late stages of the playoffs.
They are in pre-playoff mode now, though it's still November. They're playing the Saints and want to beat the Saints, but it all has a deeper meaning.
Is this the kind of 49ers offense that can win a Super Bowl? There is no other plan, there is no lesser goal, and now there probably is an exciting new quarterback to test it all out.