SAN FRANCISCO -- The knock on this year's San Francisco 49ers was that they were a one-dimensional offense, with Frank Gore the one dimension. Subtract him, and you force quarterback Alex Smith to do the improbable -- which is to carry the load -- and you know how that goes.
Smith isn't capable, which means the 49ers aren't capable of being a serious Super Bowl contender, either.
But they could be, and I'll tell you why. First of all, they're one of two frontrunners in the NFC to gain first-round byes, with unbeaten Green Bay the other. The 49ers are 8-1, just knocked off the New York Giants and have a schedule that includes only two opponents with winning records -- Pittsburgh and Baltimore.
Other than that, it's the NFC West, and let's just say I like their chances.
But Smith is the other reason. For most of this season, he's been the guy who spends his Sunday afternoons handing off to Gore and throwing the occasional touchdown pass. Except not this Sunday afternoon ... not after Gore bowed with a knee injury, and the 49ers had no choice but to turn to their quarterback.
Result: A 27-20 victory that once and for all should bury the 49ers' critics ... and maybe Smith's detractors, as well.
Not only did Smith carry the 49ers in the second half, he carried them throughout -- which, come to think of it, was the 49ers' intention from the beginning. Coaches figured the Giants would load up vs. Gore, stack the line of scrimmage and dare Smith to beat them. So they accepted the challenge, and Smith responded -- leading the club to two fourth-quarter touchdowns and another win.
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Yeah, I know, the 49ers' defense was called to the head of the class -- with Carlos Rogers' two interceptions setting up scores and defensive lineman Justin Smith choking off the Giant's last drive by batting down a fourth-down pass. But the afternoon belonged to Smith, who last week was called "a game manager" by the Giants.
OK, so, he was. But the 49ers played on that and decided to make him something else ... like a game winner ... and you saw what happened. But what's new? The guy is 8-1 this season and won seven of his last eight starts here.
Critics charge that it was the San Francisco defense and Gore who were more responsible for San Francisco's improbable start, the team's best since 1997, and maybe they're right.
But not on this afternoon. Because on this afternoon Alex Smith had to do something more than manage the 49ers' offense. He had to lead it.
"When people call you a 'game manager,' does that bother you?" Smith was asked afterward.
"I could really care less," said the unflappable Smith. "That's the honest truth. I managed myself into a victory. That's all I care about."
When the 49ers made Smith the first pick of the 2005 draft, choosing him over Cal's Aaron Rodgers, they hoped he would solidify a position that was held by Joe Montana, Steve Young and Jeff Garcia for the past two-and-a-half decades. But it didn't happen, with Smith and the 49ers floundering as they went through head coaches, offensive coordinators and a slew of losses.
So the 49ers all but gave up, drafting Colin Kaepernick in April, signing Smith to a one-year deal and planning to make a change at the position sometime this season. Only it never happened, and it never will ... not this year, it won't.
|New York Giants|
|The Giants' fourth quarter magic ran out as a 14-point deficit with 8:30 to go was too much to overcome. Eli Manning threw for 311 yards and two touchdowns and had several jaw-dropping throws, but he also had two horrific interceptions. The defense talked a good game against QB Alex Smith but let him make too many plays.|
|San Francisco 49ers|
|At 8-1 and coming off a thrilling game against a Giants team representing the number one media market, it will be impossible for the 49ers to be under the radar any longer. Alex Smith came out throwing and the offense shrugged off Frank Gore's injury to score just enough, while the defense capitalized on two INTs by CB Carlos Rogers.|
|By Michael Erler |
"I've been here when Alex was getting yelled at and everybody was talking bad about him," tight end Vernon Davis said. "He tends to keep his head up and just keep on moving. I give my heart to Alex. He's a strong guy.
"Alex knows he's on his last straw coming into the season. He knew that. So he decided to just take off and do everything the coaches asked him to do. And that's what he's doing. He's doing everything within the system to help us win games."
I'd say that about sums it up. Prior to Sunday, when we talked about Smith it was usually what he didn't do rather than what he did, and what he didn't do was throw interceptions. In fact, entering his latest game, his two interceptions were the fewest among the league's starting quarterbacks.
But now it's time to start talking about what Alex Smith can do, and what he did was step forward and lead the 49ers to a signature victory -- both for himself and the franchise.
"He executed the plan well from the first play to the last," said offensive coordinator Greg Roman. "Alex is a cool customer."
He's also a winner, and tell me the last time you heard that around here. The 49ers aren't just the best team in the NFC West; they're one of the best teams anywhere. And they're quarterbacked by someone who, like his club, deserves more attention than he's gained.
"He's always been a leader," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "The game plan was to put the ball in his hand, and he responded like we knew he would. He's done that for us all year. He's a top-flight quarterback. [I] love him."
Harbaugh is the guy who, when he was hired, said something about the 49ers being "vastly underestimated" at his first news conference. But that was in January. There is no danger of that happening now -- for him, his team or his quarterback.
"I believe in you guys," he told reporters. "I believe you'll find a way [to knock us]. As long as it's written against us, we'll be happy. Alex Smith ... you find a way to kind of diminish the guy. You call him a 'game manager,' and he's a great game manager. But you read it, and you hear people talk about it and they're trying to sleight him when they say that.
"Once again, he goes out and plays great football, and he's proven it. That's what the guy's about. I have a ton of respect for him as a player. You can write whatever you want. The more against us the better."
Forget it. Not after what we just witnessed.