Coach Jim Harbaugh , left, and Colin Kaepernick talk in the fourth quarter of the 49ers' playoff romp over the Packers. The 49ers are favored to win Sunday in Atlanta.

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On 49ers: Can they escape the infamous Sports Illustrated cover jinx?

Published: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 11:56 am | Page 1C
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013 - 7:35 pm

SANTA CLARA – Captain Comeback and Kaptain Bounceback are hitting newsstands and mailboxes this week.

Jim Harbaugh and Colin Kaepernick are featured on the cover of Sports Illustrated, albeit in unconventional fashion. The main photo is of Kaepernick running, the ball tucked under his right arm. Just below that arm is a cutout and taped-on floating head of an agape Harbaugh, who is staring up at his quarterback.

The headline "Holy …" is followed by the subhead: "Shout it from the mountaintop, Jim – you were dead on about Colin Kaepernick."

It's the first time the 49ers have made the magazine's famous cover since, well, since this time last year. The quartet of center Jonathan Goodwin, quarterback Alex Smith, fullback Bruce Miller and tailback Frank Gore were featured after the 49ers beat the Saints in the playoffs.

There are a few points to be made here.

The first is that the two covers nicely show how much the 49ers have changed in a year. The 2012 cover not only has Smith at quarterback, it has the 49ers in a very traditional backfield formation.

The new cover is of Kaepernick, a most untraditional NFL quarterback, and the story inside details Harbaugh's risky – and ultimately rewarded – decision to play the young passer over Smith earlier this season.

Another point: The national attention and adulation the 49ers currently are receiving fits a pattern, and it's not a good one for San Francisco.

It seems that whenever the 49ers have won a momentous, prime-time game this season, they've received an avalanche of adoration and have jumped to the top of everyone's power ranking (which, by the way, are about as useful as mock drafts).

And as every true fan knows by now, the 49ers haven't responded well to sweet praise. In fact, they've reacted like someone crashing after a sugar high.

To wit:

• A convincing prime-time win against the Lions – remember Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn on the sideline? – was followed by a flat loss in Minnesota.

• In Week 5, San Francisco thrashed Buffalo 45-3, becoming the first NFL team to have more than 300 rushing and passing yards in one game. The next week: a sluggish 26-3 loss to the Giants.

• On "Monday Night Football," Smith completed 18 of 19 passes in a blowout win over the Cardinals. In the 49ers' next game, they fell behind early and were lucky to tie the Rams at home.

• A big win for Kaepernick on the road against the Saints was followed by his most humbling effort of the season, a loss on the road in St. Louis.

• Finally, the 49ers were the toast of the nation after they beat Tom Brady and the Patriots on national television. A week later – also on prime time – they suffered their worst loss of the season to Russell Wilson and the Seahawks.

If the 49ers win Sunday, they will head to their sixth Super Bowl. If they lose, it will be another remarkable feat: a consistent win, win, non-win pattern over 18 games.

"No explanation, but it will be a great time to break it," Goodwin said. "… I think it's a week we have to get up for. Maybe that's something. Maybe we just kind of got in a lull in the regular season after a little success. Can't have that happen now. It's too big of a game and too valuable a moment."

Goodwin is right. The 49ers have had trouble with success.

It's clear they are very good following a loss – they've never dropped consecutive games under Harbaugh – and when they're the underdog. It is playing from a position of power against an opponent fueled by its own persecution complex when the 49ers stumble.

And that's the position they're in this week. The Falcons lost only three games this season, are the NFC's No. 1 seed and are playing at home. Yet not only are they underdogs but they find their opponents on the cover of Sports Illustrated this week.

There's also the possibility of the 49ers falling victim to the magazine cover's infamous jinx.

Goodwin said he doesn't believe in the curse. Still, as he was discounting it, he leaned over and rapped his knuckles against his locker a few times.

You know, just to be safe.

"I don't think so, but … knock on wood," he said.

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