SANTA CLARA Full-contact practices are a rarity in the NFL once the exhibition season ends and staying fresh and healthy becomes paramount.
The 49ers, however, bucked convention last week by buckling up the chinstraps before their game against the Saints.
Players said the Wednesday session, designed to remove any rust that had accumulated during the team's bye, set the tone for an intense four-day stretch that ended with the 49ers knocking the Saints out of the playoffs.
"Dashon (Goldson) came out with the face paint on his eyes already," said safety Donte Whitner on Monday. "I had my mouthpiece in, we had shoulder pads on. We were out there hitting and taped up and strapped up like we were in the game. And (Carlos Rogers) mentioned, 'Ya'll safeties are out there like it's game day already.' "
By the time the game actually arrived, it was as if Whitner had been shot from a cannon.
He had the hit of the afternoon on New Orleans' opening drive, one that occurred in the shadow of the San Francisco goal line and left Saints running back Pierre Thomas unconscious and without the football.
Secondary coach Ed Donatell said the best tackler he's ever seen was former 49er Ronnie Lott Donatell coached him one season when they were with the Jets and he agreed Whitner's performance, at least early on, was Lott-like.
"I think it was important to the game," Donatell said of Whitner's hit. "I just think it measures what it means to him when guys are flying in there and make that kind of domination hit. That's how important it is to them."
The challenge now is whether Whitner, Goldson and the others can match or surpass Saturday's intensity level.
While the Saints finished the regular season with the top-ranked passing offense, the Giants weren't far behind at No. 5, and quarterback Eli Manning finished with 330 yards and three touchdowns in the Giants' victory Sunday in Green Bay.
"The question is, 'Does the team realize that it doesn't matter what you did or what you proved?' " coach Jim Harbaugh said. "You might have proved it a thousand times before, but now you're proving it again. That's the challenge."
The 49ers players certainly seemed mentally prepared to move on from toppling the Saints to facing the Giants, a team they beat 27-20 on Nov. 13.
One member of New York's talented trio of receivers, Victor Cruz, led all pass catchers that day with 84 yards. Rogers, who had to cover Cruz, said he wrote down Cruz's name for the Pro Bowl but Cruz did not make the cut.
"He's a very good receiver who's come a long, long way," said Rogers, who had two interceptions, one on a pass intended for Cruz. "I'll have to do the same thing this game."
Whitner, meanwhile, said Manning presented just as big a challenge as the Saints' Drew Brees.
"He's getting the ball to the right guys," Whitner said. "He understands what coverages they're in. He's in the mold of Drew Brees and those guys in that he knows where to go with the football now before he snaps it. I don't know if his brother is helping him or not, but he's playing really, really well. He's at the top of his game the best he's played in his career."
Whitner also said it won't be hard to match the white-hot intensity with which he began Saturday's game. In fact, he said he plans to raise the level a few shades.
"If you're really a fan and you're really a competitor and you really love the game of football, being on the grander stage, the bigger stage really brings that out," Whitner said. " It's going to be a big game. We're going to need that intensity from everybody, and we have to put it on the line this week."