SANTA CLARA -- Safety Donte Whitner believes the 49ers have wised up when it comes to the NFC Championship game, but only after losing last season's edition to the New York Giants.
"We didn't really understand the magnitude of the moment," Whitner said Tuesday of that 20-17, overtime exit. "A championship game like this, each and every play, it's going to be a roller-coaster ride out there. We understand that now."
The 49ers (12-4-1) are favored to advance to Super Bowl XLVII despite having to travel to face the Atlanta Falcons (14-3) this Sunday at noon.
A year ago, only 11 players on the 49ers' roster had previous playoff experience. All their current starters appeared in last season's NFC title game, except for quarterback Colin Kaepernick and wide receiver Randy Moss, as well as return specialist Ted Ginn Jr.
"Walking into the locker room after that game (last year), guys don't want to feel that way again," center Jonathan Goodwin said.
This will be Goodwin's third conference finals in four seasons. Last week, he told his teammates about the feelings he cherishes from winning the Super Bowl three seasons ago with the New Orleans Saints.
Defensive tackle Ray McDonald said, "Growing up, these are the kind of games you want to be in."
Safety Dashon Goldson dismissed any connection between last season's run to the NFC Championship game and this one. "Guys are going to be up for it," Goldson said. "We'll be ready. It's another football game. No pressure for us."
Unlike last season's NFC final against Eli Manning, the 49ers won't be facing a quarterback with a Super Bowl already to his credit. Matt Ryan captured his first playoff win in four tries Sunday when the Falcons edged the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 in the divisional playoffs.
Whitner considers Ryan a top quarterback but noted: "He needs these next two games to prove it, and we need these two games to prove that we are who we say we are."
Kaepernick has proved to Whitner that he's ready for the NFC final.
"A lot of the things you have to tell younger guys, you don't have to tell him, because it's already been instilled in him," Whitner said. "I believe he'll be OK, play a good football game and lead us to our goal, the Super Bowl."
The league has yet to state whether Goldson will be fined. A month ago, Goldson got docked $21,000 for a crushing hit on the New England Patriots' Aaron Hernandez.
"I just play football, at the end of the day," Goldson said. "I don't try to hurt anybody."
"We got along really well after that," Smith told The Associated Press. "I saw my fault in it. We definitely moved on. No hard feelings for sure at this point at all. I look back at that as what could I have done differently as a young player in this league. You learn from it. No resentment at all."
Underneath the "Holy" headline is this declaration: "Shout It From The Mountaintop, Jim -- You Were Dead On About Colin Kaepernick."
The cover photo shows Kaepernick running with the ball during his 181-yard, two-touchdown rushing effort Saturday.
Kaepernick admired Sports Illustrated's covers while growing up in Turlock, some 1½ hours from the 49ers facility. "I didn't have them on my walls, but I used to look at them," Kaepernick said.
The 49ers also appeared on a Sports Illustrated regional-edition cover heading into last season's NFC title game.
James ran for 159 yards and a touchdown in the Ducks' Rose Bowl win last year over Wisconsin. He played in the BCS Championship Game as a sophomore and in the Rose Bowl as a freshman.
James had three carries for 21 yards, a 7-yard reception and a 23-yard kickoff return Saturday. Kaepernick faked a handoff to James before racing 56 yards for the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown. Said James: "He made the right read, took it and he was off."