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Finally over NFC title hump, 49ers won't have weight off shoulders until 'clock says zero-zero' with them on top

HENDERSON, Nev. -- Super Bowl LVIII is indeed a rematch, but it's been a while since the first game was played.

Time has passed. Teams have changed. This isn't the clash of the same titans.

But the 49ers have reason to feel somewhat satisfied with the fact they've gotten to this point. After two straight years of losses on the doorstep of the Super Bowl, they're finally back. They've cleared a hump that only increased in size with each passing season.

For some, it's a minor accomplishment amid the pursuit of a greater goal. For all, it's not enough. While it's great to be in the Super Bowl, the job isn't finished.

"I don't think there will be any weight off our shoulders until that clock says zero-zero and the Niners are on top," receiver Deebo Samuel said Thursday.

He's right. If getting to the Super Bowl came with pressure, playing in the Super Bowl will only multiply it exponentially.

Balancing this reality comes down to an individual-by-individual process. Everyone finds motivation in different places, and none of the participants will struggle to locate the drive necessary to perform. But managing the expectation and pressure -- both personally and as a team -- remains paramount to success.

If anything, the 49ers have some recent experience delivering under pressure. They've overcome two playoff deficits at home with furious second-half comebacks, building tidal waves of momentum to complete thrilling victories.

If only, though, it weren't so difficult.

"I always find myself looking at the positive sides of it," Kyle Juszczyk explained Thursday. "We didn't play complete games, and now we have that experience of what it takes to come back and win a high-stakes game.

"For me, it's like all right, now I have that tool on my belt. Let's go out there and start fast, do what we normally did, build that lead and also know we still have that in our holster if we need it."

Ideally, the Niners never have to break the glass to retrieve the fire extinguisher. They know they're good enough to overcome a deficit, but also know they'd be doing themselves a disservice if they relied on that too heavily.

The answer: Start fast. Don't get caught sleeping in the biggest game of their lives.

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"We collectively understand that in the Super Bowl, you can't expect to be able to say, 'Hey, we're just a better football team. Schematically and skill-wise, we'll be able to come back from 24-7, make these triumphant comebacks,'" safety Tashaun Gipson said Thursday. "This is the Super Bowl. This (Kansas City) is a great team. That's the best team in the AFC. If you don't come with your best foot forward from start to finish, this game can easily end in a lot of tears in that locker room from a bunch of grown men.

"The message is loud and clear: We understand we have to start fast, and we can't go through those slumps. Football is football; They're going to make plays. They have the highest-paid quarterback in the league. They have one of the best tight ends in the league. They have so many good things going. This game is going to be a challenging game, but at the end of the day, we can't bury ourselves or put ourselves in a hole because in the Super Bowl, it's just not practical to say, 'Hey, we can come back.' Sometimes it can be too late. So to avoid those things, we've just got to come out and play our brand of football."

If anyone will appreciate this Super Bowl trip the most, it's likely Gipson, who began his career in Cleveland with a dreadful Browns team that needed three years to crack double digits in wins -- in the combined seasons. On Thursday, he estimated his total number of triumphs in brown and orange to be in the mid-teens (the actual total was 19). With years of experience playing for a subpar team, Gipson understandably never imagined he might play for a Lombardi Trophy.

Eight years later, though, he's here.

"Every year for the Super Bowl, I'm throwing Super Bowl parties. I don't envision myself playing in one," Gipson said. "And you go so long in your career, and to be here now, it's so surreal. I'm just trying to take this all in.

"It makes me appreciate it, man. I know a lot of people hate the media (sessions) and doing all the extra things, and to each his own. To me, I think this whole process, this might be once in a lifetime. It might be guys who are here that this might be the only time they're here. So why not appreciate these moments? Because it's not guaranteed."

For some 49ers, they don't see it as pressure. They simply know they have a job to do. And for individuals like Gipson, the Super Bowl is nothing but fuel to work harder. As he said Thursday, "the gears have just been grinding."

"We knew we were a good football team," he continued. "Our goal coming into the year was we expected to be here. The guys that we have, coming off of last year, practically the same team. We said, 'Hey man, anything less than a Super Bowl is unacceptable for this group of guys.' Because we know it won't be the same (next year). For us to be here, ah man, it's great. But winning is still the ultimate goal. So practices are a little harder. You see Coach Shanahan, he's getting a little antsy when things don't look good in practice, and rightfully so because to get this close, it's cool, but to finish it, man, is what it's all about. There's no second-place trophies. Our mind is on getting the big one."

The big one -- and success in football overall -- is mercilessly fleeting. As Shanahan said Thursday, there's only one team that's happy at the end of the year.

The 49ers are happy they're in the Super Bowl. Satisfaction won't come, though, until it's settled.

"You feel free after a win. It alleviates that pressure for like a second," Juszczyk said. "But then it's right to we need to win the Super Bowl. And that, obviously, would relieve the most pressure.

"Because if we go out there and we don't win," he continued, pausing briefly as if his memories of Super Bowl defeat bubbled to the surface of his conscious. "We're all going to say we had the team to win. So there is that pressure that comes right back."

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