SANTA CLARA -- Neither home-field advantage nor any other asset was enough to lift the 49ers over the New York Giants in last season's NFC Championship game.
Nine months later, the 49ers have given rise to more weapons, all of which make them favorites in Sunday's rematch at Candlestick Park.
Their offense is a yard-gobbling machine. Their quarterback is the league's top-rated passer. Their defense allows the fewest points. And their 4-1 record is magnified by their past two blowout wins of New York's other teams: the Jets and the Bills.
Yes, the 49ers have made "forward progress," to borrow a key phrase from last season's NFC title game. (Reminder: Officials nullified a 49ers fumble recovery by ruling that Ahmad Bradshaw's forward progress was stopped before he lost the ball.)
Here are five reasons the 49ers are poised to fare better Sunday:
1. More diversified offense
You don't rack up 1,000 yards in a two-game span by just trying to "run it, and run it, and run it," as Giants coach Tom Coughlin suggested of the 49ers' style.
Then again, when the 49ers do run the ball, who carries it? Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, a wide receiver on a fly sweep, or the latest weapon, Colin Kaepernick, out of the "WildKap" formation?
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman prefers that his collection of trick plays be termed "mixers," because he will mix them in when he deems appropriate. Kaepernick
Mix in an improved passing attack, and the 49ers are more unpredictable than ever.
2. Better receiving options
In the NFC Championship game, the Giants faced a wide-receiving corps that caught just one ball -- and that for a 3-yard gain, by Michael Crabtree. Hence, the 49ers stocked up in the offseason.
The addition of Randy Moss and Giants Super Bowl hero Mario Manningham has complemented the passing attack, and Crabtree is on pace for a career-high 86 receptions for 995 yards.
Smith is completing passes to seven different receivers per game, yet another example of the 49ers' diversified portfolio.
3. Stingy pass coverage
Only the Dallas Cowboys are allowing fewer passing yards per game than the 49ers (181.2), and no completions have gone for longer than 50 yards this season. The 49ers credit that success to returning virtually the same defensive cast from last season, with the benefit of a full offseason together.
The most visible factor in Sunday's pass defense might revolve around Justin Smith. Look for the 49ers to further rally around Smith, who has been accused by Giants offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride of "getting away with murder" when he holds offensive linemen. Coach Jim Harbaugh issued a terse statement Friday condemning Gilbride and contesting that the "higher profile" Giants are merely trying to influence the officiating.
One more noticeable change: Perrish Cox's addition to the secondary provides a more aggressive front when the 49ers need six defensive backs.
4. Many happy returns
One look at the 49ers' depth chart explains it all: Ted Ginn Jr. is back as the 49ers' primary punt returner. Ginn hasn't lost a fumble since the 2010 season, but a knee injury forced him to miss the NFC title game that, you might recall, was decided by Kyle Williams' two botched returns.
Williams has responded in tremendous fashion, on and off the field. While he shares the No. 3 receiver role with Moss, Williams can cause havoc on kickoff returns with his speed and elusiveness.
5. An 'expert' quarterback
Harbaugh's preseason reference to Alex Smith being an "expert" in the 49ers' system sure looks valid. Smith leads the league with a 108.8 passer rating.
Smith, teammates and coaches agree, seems so much more comfortable thanks to continuity. He knows where his receivers will be, how to read defenses better and when to audible, something he was forbidden to do early in his career.
Smith also knows how vital third-down success can be, and to offset that pressure, he has led the 49ers to the best gains on first-down plays this season. The 49ers were 1 of 13 on third-down efficiency in the NFC Championship game. In Sunday's rout of the Bills, they converted on 7 of 11 third-down plays.
"Alex is more confident in calling plays and checking to different plays," tight end Delanie Walker said. "And you see more explosive players doing what they do best."
That combined effort is what it will take Sunday to knock off a Giants team that finished last season as the best of the best.