Truth be told, in general, I am not a man of faith.

Wait, wait. Don't panic. I'm not gonna talk about that kind of faith, the kind by which a certain quarterback (hint: his initials are T.T.) has distracted the masses from his own incompetence. I'm talking about a different faith. A faith that is, to some at least, the very essence of being a fan.

I admit, it's not easy to separate fandom and faith. What is fandom, after all, if it isn't relentless belief in your team? Fandom, in its truest sense, originates in childhood, when it's natural to believe in heroes. To a child, a professional athlete is Superman, and Superman just doesn't lose.

My own Superman was Joe Montana. To my nine-year-old eyes, he was everything. Greatness itself, excellence incarnate. But even then, I struggled with faith, and damned if Joe didn't make me pay. You might recall the scenario, getting the ball on our own 11 in the waning moments of the NFC title game, down 6 points to those cretins from Dallas. A more faithful soul might've anticipated the impending miracle, but I myself couldn't bear to watch. Overcome by the likelihood that I was about to see Superman fail, I raced upstairs, in tears, barricading myself in my room. The next thing I remember is the voice of my father, who'd stayed. I understood the words he called through my door, but nevertheless they confused me.

"They scored," he said. My reply was straightforward: "What?!" I raced downstairs and arrived in time to see the extra point go through. I was euphoric but utterly in shock.

Only later did I learn that I'd missed what's still the most famous play in the history of the game. That's a tough thing to come to grips with. But needless to say, I'd learned my lesson. That was the first and last time I ever lost faith in Superman.

As time passed, though, things changed. Superman moved on, and after a glorious second-act, the Niners got very, very bad. For me, at least, faith and fandom diverged completely. I was still a fan, as the team by now was engrafted onto my DNA. But faith? The unwavering belief that the team, if it wasn't a champion, was at least on the way to becoming one?

No. Way too much reality. After the worst decade in franchise history, I was a walking contradiction: a faithless fan, seemingly irretrievably.

Then Jim Harbaugh showed up.

His arrival was so dramatic, so indisputably hopeful, I immediately dubbed him Superman II. Then, of course, the games started, and despite the lesson of 30 years prior, my skepticism reared up again.

It's today's league, and the old rules are dead. Running and stopping the run? Dead. Defense wins championships? Dead. In today's league, passing wins. Great offense beats great defense (and great special-teams). These new rules aren't just general trends. They're essentially immutable laws. We bent 'em through most of the regular year. But to win it all, we'll have to break 'em: again, again, and again.

Forget one-game-at-a-time for a second. As I'm sure you've noticed, unless there's an upset, we'll have to beat New Orleans, Green Bay, and New England. Three Hall of Fame quarterbacks, and three of the greatest offenses ever. Sure, we've got a great defense--though the season finale demonstrated that our secondary's still subject to lapses--and our special teams might be the best of all time. But in today's league, with an offense ranked at 26 (two spots worse than even last year), running this gauntlet seems nearly impossible.

As we've discussed, a philosophical change is required. Our offense has been too conservative; we must take more chances (read: we must throw more passes), especially in the red zone and on third down. In general, though, Harbaugh's got the right idea. He doesn't have a great QB (though he's certainly got a good one), and he doesn't have elite receivers. Without some serious offensive might, getting into a firefight with Brees, Rodgers, or Brady would be certifiably suicidal. We won't beat 'em 38-35, and Harbaugh's right to not even try.

On the other hand, beating 'em 20-to-17 doesn't seem particularly likely either.

Yet this is just where faith comes in.

There's just something about this coach, this team. Not all of our wins were pretty; most of 'em were assuredly not. Yet these guys somehow went 13-and-3. Two of those losses were given away, and one was lost before it was played. Yet it never seemed we were likely to lose. Like a certain hero, somehow we'd win.

The result is simply a sheer belief. It's not an ignorance of the unlikeliness of it all. I know that this will be seriously tough. Yet I just can't shake this feeling we'll do it. If you were to ask me how, I don't think I could give you an answer. I just think that somehow we'll win. I just, simply, believe it.

I feel, in short, like a child again. The comparisons between Harbaugh and Walsh, between this season and the one three decades ago--they've become almost trite. But underneath those superficial similarities, there's something deeper. Something that reaches into an innocence long thought to have vanished. Something that penetrates the usual shields that grown-ups collect: the cynical realism, the hardened skepticism, the refusal to accept what seems inexplicable. And that's what really makes this team special. It doesn't just win. It reminds you of why you became a fan in the first place.

And all it took was the greatest coaching performance since, well, three decades ago. He's made mistakes. At rare points, he's seemed almost lost. He's a human being, and when he needs a nudge, we'll give him a nudge. But humanity aside, he's still our new Superman, every bit the savior we'd hoped. And I won't repeat my youthful mistake. I won't lose faith in Superman.

It's playoff time. And for the first time, in a long time, I'm not just a Niner fan.

I'm a Niner Faithful.