Way back in September, the 49ers had every idea it would turn out this way, and they knew it wasn't going to be a pleasant journey.
They had just gotten throttled in Seattle in the second week of the season, they were nursing their wounds, and a 49ers official looked into the future and spelled it out starkly.
"So we'll have to go on the road in the playoffs and win and then go to Seattle and win there, too," the official said. "None of us has to be happy about it.
"We'll just have to get better and then take our shot then."
Through many months of twists and increasingly difficult postseason trials, the 49ers are exactly where they thought they'd be.
Because they lost the division to Seattle, the 49ers had to fly into frozen hell and beat Green Bay two weeks ago, fly home, fly across country to pound out a victory over Carolina on Sunday and fly home again.
Now the 49ers will have a few more practices at home, then they'll fly to Seattle to play the Seahawks in the NFC Championship game, just as predicted, expected and fated.
That doesn't make it any easier, but from the beginning of this playoff run (or much further back), this is what the 49ers accepted.
If the 49ers couldn't overtake Seattle in the standings, they knew they had to try to repeat what the 2010 Green Bay Packers did, and that's win three consecutive road games in the conference playoffs to get to and win the Super Bowl.
But those Packers didn't have Seattle (15-1 at home over the last two regular seasons) sitting there at the end of the road.
All this -- while Seattle has stayed at home and only had to beat New Orleans last weekend -- was the 49ers' penance for losing to Seattle in September, for losing several other games and watching the Seahawks take the NFC West and the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
Yes, the 49ers beat Seattle last month at Candlestick, but it wasn't enough to change the course of this rivalry.
All this was the mountain the 49ers had to climb in order to earn the right to get back to CenturyLink Field, endure the decibel-thunder, and try again to win in Seattle.
After two consecutive blowout losses in Seattle, are the 49ers ready for this?
"I hope so," guard Alex Boone said Sunday, with a shrug.
There is no use for the 49ers to blare false bravado or try to talk themselves into a frenzy. They knew they were better than Green Bay and Carolina, and they proved it.
And now, their entire season has been crystallized into a single question they've been asking themselves since September: Are they good enough to win in Seattle?
By leaps and bounds, the 49ers are a better team than the one that couldn't handle the Seahawks in September.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is playing with far more confidence and verve, receiver Michael Crabtree is back in the lineup, and the 49ers defense continues to play at the highest levels.
Are they good enough? The 49ers don't know; there is no way to know until they play this game.
The 49ers also could be a tired team after all this travel and the six consecutive victories to close the regular season.
The pressure has been enormous, but the 49ers seem to have been steeled and settled by the difficulties of this situation.
The 49ers had the responsibility to win the last two games, but this week they're the plucky underdogs. They're the wild-card, upstart team.
Now all they have to do is play the best game of the season ... with the pressure on Seattle, by the way.
"One game," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said Sunday. "Everybody has to man up; we can't let the crowd bother us.
"Each man in this locker room has to man up when we get to Seattle. The crowd noise can't affect us, their defensive line, their defense ... "
The keys? The 49ers offense has to play much better than it did when the Seahawks swarmed Kaepernick and Co. amid the roar in September.
And the 49ers defense has to take over this game.
"Our defense, we have to go out there and be the best defense on the field," Whitner said.
"We have to get turnovers and possibly have to score on defense when we get up there. We understand that to win that football game."
The fun aspect about this game -- other than the winner earning a trip to the Super Bowl -- is that the 49ers and Seattle are the best two teams in the NFL and have been eyeing each other all season.
It's what had to happen. It was NFL kismet.
"Sure, why not?" 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said Sunday of playing Seattle for a Super Bowl berth. "Our team's excited to have this chance at the ultimate chance, and we'll be ready."
As far back as September, the 49ers knew they had to earn this trip, which is what they did, with blood, sweat and many airline miles.
The preliminaries are over. Really, the last four months were one long preliminary for this game, and here it is.
AFC: New England at Denver, noon CBS
NFC: 49ers at Seattle, 3:30 p.m. FOX
Jim Harbaugh thinks the 49ers' many travels prepared them for their next road test. PAGE 4
For a look at the 49ers' 14 previous NFC title games, go to