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Veterans from the glory days of the franchise are surprised how quickly it all happened. But they like what they’re seeing.

“We have been flat on our back for a while and we’ve been seeing this roulette of coaches and general managers and players, and you’re in that awful place where you are just in a cycle that you can’t seem to get out of,” former 49ers quarterback Steve Young said Wednesday. “We thought it would be a much longer journey. It’s been an amazing, literally unprecedented, (but) it’s not overnight. It’s been a six-month march of building substance behind substance behind substance which makes them a legitimate championship football team.”

Young, who was the MVP of the last San Francisco Super Bowl win in 1995, said Smith’s struggles in his first six years with the team came not only because he found himself playing for a different offensive coordinator every year but because he was being counted on to carry the team. He said he talked to Smith this week and the quarterback _ who brought the team together for informal practices during the lockout _ feels as if he’s finally in sync with his coaches.

“He always seemed like he was carrying the load of everything, which was not necessarily true, or appropriate,” Young said. “And now, he describes it as, look, I feel that I’m doing less, but you now see on the field he’s doing way more.”

Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice put it more simply:

“I think it was Harbaugh, but I think it came down to this team taking over, these players starting to believe in themselves,” Rice said. “You see that on the football field. They believe when they step on that field they can win the football game. When (former coach) Mike Singletary had this team, I didn’t see that.”

It’s not just the 49ers and their fans who believe. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas make them 2 1/2-point favorite at home against the surging New York Giants in the NFC championship game. It’s not easy anymore to find a reason to bet against them.

The winner gets a trip to the Super Bowl, something the great San Francisco teams of the past used to treat almost as a birthright.

The Harbaugh era is just beginning, and after only 17 games it’s too early to predict how it will play out. Still, there’s a sense the best is still to come.

“They’re living on their own. They’re creating their own legacy,” Craig said. “They should not be compared to us. I love it. I love what they’re doing. This is their time.”

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or follow at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg