SAN FRANCISCO, JAN. 8 -- In each of the past three seasons, the NFC team with the home field advantage has rumbled through the playoffs like a street gang, scaring the rest of the league into surrender right through the Super Bowl.

This year, the NFC's best team is the San Francisco 49ers. And no matter how good the Minnesota Vikings looked last week in beating New Orleans, the fact remains that the 49ers come into Candlestick Park at 4 p.m. EST (WUSA-TV-9) ready to start what they hope will be a third trip to the Super Bowl this decade.

After a week off as a reward for winning the NFC West, the 49ers enter the playoffs with the best record in the NFL (13-2), the top-rated passer in Joe Montana, the league's No. 1 receiver in Jerry Rice, the league's best offense, the league's best defense, and victories in its last three games by an aggregate score of 124-7. Consider that the 49ers are 5-0 in home playoff games under Coach Bill Walsh, and some may wonder if the Vikings (9-7) can even provide some suspense.

Vikings Coach Jerry Burns ended one element of suspense by announcing that Wade Wilson will start at quarterback ahead of Tommy Kramer, although he declined to elaborate on why. It might not matter much against a 49ers team favored by 10 1/2 points.

Walsh vows the 49ers won't pay any attention to the general perception that they are a lock to beat the Vikings, and a huge favorite to beat the Bears or Redskins to get into the Super Bowl.

"We will have a lot of confidence," Walsh said. "I don't think it borders on arrogance or over-confidence. We have absorbed enough disappointments in the years not to develop the strutting arrogance you occasionally see in pro sports."

Actually, it's the Vikings who have developed a little swagger. A week ago, it looked as if Minnesota didn't even belong in the final 10. The Vikings had lost three of their final four games and got into the playoffs only because the St. Louis Cardinals couldn't beat Dallas on the final Sunday of the regular season.

But that was a long time ago. A 44-10 victory in the playoffs can change the way a team feels about itself. Vikings receiver Anthony Carter, under-used much of the season, said this week he'd have about the same numbers as San Francisco's Jerry Rice (league-record 22 touchdown receptions) if the Vikings would just get him the ball.

Minnesota tight end Steve Jordan said the Vikings "have rolled into" the Bay Area ready to score and upset. And Minnesota defensive end Chris Doleman said the 49ers Bubba Paris can't block him.

Doleman, who had a stretch of seven games in which he sacked the quarterback and forced a fumble on the same play, is one of the Vikings who's tired of hearing about what a great team the 49ers have and how little chance Minnesota has.

"This is starting to tick me off, how everyone has just talked down the Vikings," Doleman said. "I think everyone is getting to where they believe we're just going to go out there so they can beat us and it's another notch in their belts."

Doleman, who led the Vikings with 11 sacks, told reporters earlier this week, "From everything I've heard {Paris} is susceptible to getting beat."

The 49ers might not be strutting but they are not above answering. "I've read what he said and I'm going to keep it in mind," Paris said. "I am going to be quite ready for him when we play Saturday."

As every day goes by, and every time Minnesota's 44-10 victory over New Orleans is reviewed, people begin talking themselves into believing that the Vikings have a good chance to win. Chicago Coach Mike Ditka already has said as much.

"All I'm going to say is that we've heard this story before," San Francisco offensive lineman Bruce Collie said. "There was Cleveland, Chicago and New Orleans. It seemed like they were all No. 1 when we played them."

When the season began, there was no indication the 49ers would enter the playoffs No. 1. They started by losing to Pittsburgh, and were a lock to go 0-2 until Cincinnati Coach Sam Wyche gave them a free play, and a victory, with one second left.

The 49ers overcame the defections of many of their marquee players, including Montana, during the 24-day players' strike. And Eddie DeBartolo, the club owner, offered some incentive for staying together by guaranteeing his players $10,000 each if the team made the playoffs.

NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle fined DeBartolo $50,000 on Thursday for violating league rules in paying those bonuses. But it may have been well worth it.

The Vikings would like to make the bonus play backfire completely. It might take revolving quarterbacks to do it. Burns changed quarterbacks six times against the Saints and it didn't seem to hurt the offense.

And for good reason. With receivers Carter and Leo Lewis, versatile running back Darrin Nelson and tight end Jordan, the Vikings have as many weapons as the 49ers or anybody else in the league. And even with all those receivers, Minnesota has rushed for more than 200 yards in each of its last three games.

Like San Francisco, Minnesota doesn't have to worry if one of its quarterbacks should go down. True, the 49ers have the two hottest quarterbacks in the league in Montana and Steve Young -- who together have thrown 88 passes without an interception. But the Vikings can go to the bench -- if Wilson is cold -- and bring in a man who was the No. 1-rated passer in the league last season.

And although these games rarely boil down to one player or one matchup, Minnesota's ability to involve Carter is crucial to its chances of winning.

Also crucial for any team playing the 49ers is its ability to keep Rice -- the NFC's most outstanding offensive player -- from taking over the game.

The Minnesota secondary isn't likely to do a better job than any other team's in coverage. But the Vikings' defense, with Doleman at the right end and Keith Millard applying pressure up the middle from the right tackle spot, could at least hurry Montana, who likes to take short dropbacks.

No matter how you cut it, the 49ers figure to win. Some would say, win big. But the Vikings say the Saints figured the same way.