Playing for a perennial title contender at Oregon has prepared James for the big stage of the NFL playoffs. He played in three BCS bowl games, including the national championship game against Auburn at the end of his second year in January 2011. He capped his college career by rushing for 159 yards and one touchdown in a 45-38 Rose Bowl win over Wisconsin last January.
"I don't think there's too much difference from playing a BCS game at Oregon," James said of the NFL playoffs. "I think it's really helped me out playing big games like these. It's second nature to me. I really don't think it's too big a deal."
He has shown that so far, playing his best on the biggest stage. After making his debut against Miami on Dec. 9 with eight carries for 30 yards, James delivered his most important play of the regular season the following week in a prime-time game at New England.
He returned a kick 62 yards after New England rallied back from 31-3 down to tie the game in the fourth quarter. Kaepernick threw a touchdown pass to Michael Crabtree on the next play as the Niners went on to the win that proved to be the difference in the NFC West race with Seattle.
The big plays have kept coming in the playoffs. He was the decoy on Kaepernick's 56-yard option keeper that gave San Francisco the lead for good two weeks ago in the 49ers' playoff opener against Green Bay.
He then had five carries for 34 yards, including a 15-yard touchdown run that started the Niners comeback in Atlanta that has them preparing for the Super Bowl.
"He always has been a smart player," Gore said. "First, coming in the offense was kind of different. Now the offense is similar to what he did in college. That helps him a lot."
NOTES: LB Ahmad Brooks (shoulder) practiced for the first time this week. ... TE Garrett Celek (foot) is still sidelined.
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AP Sports Writer Janie McCauley contributed to this report