Niners show Giants, NFC they’re legit contenders

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SAN FRANCISCO – The 49ers’ most competitively charged week in nearly nine years began with the coaching staff putting its faith in one Smith’s arm and ended with another Smith putting his arm in the way of Eli Manning’s(notes) last-minute comeback attempt.

By the time the Niners’ work week was complete Sunday afternoon, every player in the home locker room at Candlestick Park had earned the right to flex.

Alex Smith passed for 242 yards and one touchdown against the Giants.
(US Presswire)

In the biggest test of legitimacy thus far for the NFL’s most surprising team of 2011, San Francisco pulled out a 27-20 victory over the New York Giants, moving to within half a game of the undefeated, defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers in the race for home-field advantage in the NFC.

If you’d read that previous sentence in early September as a sneak preview of the future, you’d have assumed it was lifted from The Onion. But here we are in the middle of November and the 49ers (8-1), led by a rookie coach undaunted by the challenge of a lockout and a quarterback who spent the previous six years as a punching bag for Niners fans and opponents alike, have a seven-game winning streak and a five-game lead in the NFC West with seven to play.

[ Related: NFL’s Week 10 Winners and Losers ]

They also have swagger, even though coach Jim Harbaugh and his players do their best to project a humble facade. Chafed by the popular perception that quarterback Alex Smith is merely a game-manager administering a run-oriented, conservative offense, Harbaugh and his offensive assistants defiantly crafted an aggressive game plan for the Giants (6-3), nonplussed by the specter of facing the league’s most potent pass rush.

“All week long, they talked about attacking,” Smith said of Harbaugh and his coaches. “They hear what’s being said. They know. This was a big game, and they were out to prove a point. It was like, manage this.”

While Smith’s numbers weren’t overwhelming – he completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards, with one touchdown and an interception – this was no Just Don’t Screw It Up effort. There were strong, downfield throws and seven-step drops sprinkled in among the usual assortment of high-percentage passes and quick, rollout throws.

Oh, and the focal point of the Niners’ offensive attack, halfback Frank Gore(notes), had his streak of five consecutive 100-yard rushing games ended. In fact, Gore fell a mere 100 yards shy of that total, gaining nada in six attempts and sustaining a seemingly minor left knee injury that limited him to one snap in the second half.

Smith had 27 of San Francisco’s 77 rushing yards and basically carried the offense on Sunday. Technically, he produced his fourth fourth-quarter comeback of the season, as the Niners trailed 13-12 when the third quarter ended. The foundation for the go-ahead touchdown, a 31-yard Vernon Davis(notes) catch, run and leap that utterly fooled the Giants’ defenders, was established from San Francisco’s opening drive.

After Manning led New York on a long field-goal march to begin the game, Smith took over at his 20-yard line and came out slinging. He rolled to his right and hit tight end Delanie Walker(notes) for an 11-yard gain, then threw a 21-yard rope to wideout Braylon Edwards(notes). On third-and-8 from his own 49, he zipped a 14-yard pass over the middle to receiver Ted Ginn.

That possession, and each of the Niners’ next two, would end with David Akers(notes) field goals, the last of which followed a successful onside kick. At the end of the half, Ginn mishandled a Smith pass and it was snatched out of the air by Giants cornerback Corey Webster(notes) at the New York 16 – the quarterback’s lone blemish, and only his third pick of the season.

San Francisco stayed aggressive in the second half, which began with Smith hitting Walker for a 14-yard gain, then looping a 16-yard strike to Ginn two plays later. Perhaps the most surprising statistic: Smith was sacked only twice, even as the 49ers continued to attack downfield.

“We talked about [their pass rush] all week, too,” Smith said. “Everybody on that defense can rush the passer – it’s crazy. Those guys up front were great; they blocked like crazy and gave me time to throw.”

If Smith’s coaches were a bit sensitive about the quarterback’s game-manager label heading into Sunday’s game, his teammates were similarly protective afterward.

“He’s winning,” Edwards said of Smith. “You can call it what you want to, but he’s winning, period. He’s making the plays when he needs to, and that’s what it’s taking for this team to succeed. Not every team is going to have an Aaron Rodgers(notes) and win with a high-flying offense. We do it differently.”

Now ponder this unlikely notion: If Rodgers and the Saints’ Drew Brees(notes) are slam-dunk Pro Bowl selections in the NFC, Smith is very much in the running for a trip to Hawaii. He’s in a group with Manning, the Cowboys’ Tony Romo(notes), the Bears’ Jay Cutler(notes), the Falcons’ Matt Ryan(notes), the Lions’ Matthew Stafford(notes) and Panthers rookie Cam Newton(notes) competing for that honor, though he’s obviously hoping he’ll have to decline the invitation: After all, with the Niners a game-and-a-half ahead of the Saints and two ahead of the Giants in the race for a first-round bye, envisioning them as conference champions (and thus off-limits for Pro Bowl participation) isn’t mere hyperbole.

[ Related: Lions QB starts fight during embarrassing loss to Bears ]

If you’re looking for over-the-top hype, try Harbaugh’s postgame proclamation to reporters that defensive end Justin Smith(notes) “should be in the MVP category, conversation.”

49ers defensive end Justin Smith dives for the ball in front of Victor Cruz(notes).
(US Presswire)
Easy, Harbs: Child actor Jaden Smith has a better chance of winning that award, and we all know it.

As for the more realistic defensive player of the year chase, the 49ers have only one marquee player on that side of the ball, inside linebacker Patrick Willis(notes), who figures to at least be in the conversation. Justin Smith will likely be left out, which is just fine with him.

“I don’t want any of that,” Smith said Sunday, after ending the Giants’ potential game-tying drive by batting down Manning’s fourth-and-2 pass from the San Francisco 10 with 34 seconds remaining.

Locked up with left guard David Diehl(notes), Smith held his ground at the line of scrimmage and perfectly timed his deflection of Manning’s over-the-middle pass, leaping as he raised his right arm. OK, perhaps he didn’t leap.

“Maybe five inches,” Smith said of his vertical. “I really wasn’t sure what they were running. I just got right in there and jumped. I got lucky. Maybe it’s better to be lucky than good.”

Perhaps Smith has replaced Lou Gehrig as the luckiest man on the face of the earth: In early October, he was fortunate enough to clinch the Niners’ 24-23 victory at Philadelphia when he happened to chase down explosive wideout Jeremy Maclin(notes) from behind and force a fumble that killed the Eagles’ final chance.

Yep, that was pretty lucky.

“Oh, he’s a beast,” Alex Smith said of his namesake. “Two games, he’s singlehandedly won for us, and he’s always good. I think he’s one of the most underrated players in the NFL.”

Plus, you know, he’s a Smith.

“We’re distant cousins,” Alex joked. “I’m obviously from the dominant genes.”

Justin Smith is hardly submissive, though his talents aren’t always obvious to casual observers. Signed as a free agent in 2008 after seven seasons with the Bengals, the 6-4, 285-pound Smith has never posted a double-digit sack season but does the little things that coaches love. And like so many other 49ers under the guidance of this particular head coach, as opposed to failed predecessors Mike Singletary and Mike Nolan, Smith is giving ex-general manager Scot McCloughan’s personnel acumen some retrospective street cred.

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“Man, it feels good to win,” said Smith, who has appeared in just one playoff game in his 11-year career. “I’m telling these guys, keep working, but enjoy this. These years are hard to come by. We all believe, though. It’s a focused, unshakeable team.”

After Sunday’s victory over the Giants, who were coming off an emotional road victory over the Patriots, the 49ers have established themselves as a team with legitimate Super Bowl aspirations.

“They’re good,” Manning said. “They’re talented all over. The defense is strong, the offense is playing well, and they don’t make mistakes. They play smart, they’re sound and they’re getting wins.”

Added defensive end Osi Umenyiora(notes), who had one of the Giants’ sacks: “Oh yeah, they’re a good team. We’ll see ‘em again.”

If so, don’t expect Harbaugh and his quarterback to approach the opportunity meekly. At least, not after the way they charged fearlessly into Sunday’s game, which was probably the biggest at Candlestick since the same two franchises met in January 2003, with the Niners pulling off an incredible, 39-38 comeback victory.

That was the last time San Francisco sniffed the postseason, an experience to which many of the current 49ers can’t relate. Edwards, who reached the AFC championship game with the Jets in each of the previous two seasons, believes these Niners passed a significant test on Sunday.

“This was our first real big-stage challenge,” Edwards said. “I think we handled it well. Sure, there are things we’d like to have back. But you can’t argue with the outcome.”

After Sunday, you can’t quibble with the quarterback, either. Call him a glorified handoff specialist, or call him a gunslinger. It’s all good. Whatever the Niners want Smith to do, he’ll manage.

#WINNING

Tom Brady(notes) and teammates celebrate Rob Gronkowski’s(notes) first TD.
(Getty Images)

Bill Belichick often goes out of his way to avoid conveying anything that might be construed as genuine emotion in his postgame media sessions, but the Patriots’ coach seemed sincerely thrilled with his players following Sunday’s night’s 37-16 road victory over the Jets – and with good reason. Coming off consecutive defeats to the Steelers and Giants and facing a motivated rival on a three-game winning streak, New England brought its “A” game to New Jersey: From Belichick’s smart, effective blueprint and strategic use of a hurry-up attack, to Tom Brady’s utter mastery of the offense (26-of-39, 329 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions), to tight end Rob Gronkowski’s continued emergence as a big-time receiving threat (eight catches, 113 yards, two TDs), to the marked improvement of the league’s 32nd-ranked defense. Among the playmakers for the latter unit on Sunday were linebacker Rob Ninkovich(notes), who intercepted a pair of Mark Sanchez(notes) passes and returned the second 12 yards for a touchdown, and defensive end Andre Carter(notes), a bargain-basement, free-agent signee who had a stunning franchise-record 4½ sacks. Given that Carter and I have the same alma mater, I prefer to view Sunday’s effort as an early omen for Big Game week. Given that my Golden Bears will be three-touchdown underdogs against an angry Cardinal team coming off its first loss of the season – one that most likely will not “Suck for Luck” at Stanford Stadium on Saturday night – I’m looking for any hopeful signs I can find. Here’s one: A “Go Bears” from the commander in chief, uttered to North County Times columnist Jay Paris, though it’s possible President Obama was making a reference not to God’s University but to his hometown NFL team …. Speaking of those Bears, who pummeled the Lions 37-13 to move into a second-place tie with Detroit (and two-and-a-half games behind Green Bay) in the NFC North, can we all stop and marvel at Devin Hester(notes), the greatest return man of all time? After adding to his NFL record with a 12th career punt return for touchdown against the Lions, Hester, who is still very much in his prime, has 18 career TD returns of any sort, putting him just one behind all-time leader Deion (Prime Time) Sanders. Will Hester someday join Sanders in the Hall of Fame? I’m starting to think it’s possible. … If the AFC playoffs were to begin today, the Houston Texans would own the No. 1 seed. I’m not saying the Texans are necessarily the best team in the conference (yet), but they’re probably better than most people realize: Sunday’s 37-9 road victory over the Bucs was Houston’s fourth straight triumph, all without All-Pro wideout Andre Johnson(notes), who is due to return from a hamstring injury after next week’s bye. And, quietly, the Texans – under new coordinator Wade Phillips – boast the NFL’s top-ranked defense. I’m not joking – this is my job. … Darryl (Chocolate Thunder) Dawkins would have been proud of Jimmy Graham(notes) on Sunday – the Saints’ fantastic tight end celebrated an early touchdown in New Orleans’ 26-23, overtime victory over the Falcons by dunking the football over the Georgia Dome goalpost, compromising the structural integrity of the end-zone fixture. Brees also threw down in a figurative sense – throwing for 322 yards to boost his season total to 3,326 – the league’s highest-ever total through 10 games, and on pace to exceed Dan Marino’s single-season record. Brees has now thrown at least one TD pass in 37 consecutive games, second only to Johnny Unitas. New Orleans’ defense essentially won the game with a huge fourth-down stop in overtime – more on this in Diatribe – which pleased veteran linebacker Scott Shanle(notes) immensely. “That is a challenge of manhood – thinking they could move us on defense,” Shanle wrote via text message Sunday evening. “It feels good to rise up.” (Ouch, Falcons fans.) It was surely the unit’s most satisfying moment since last January’s playoff debacle in Seattle, which was one reason defensive coordinator Gregg Williams celebrated on the sidelines like my fellow Cal fans and me at the Dutch Goose after the 2009 Big Game. … Finally: Tim Tebow’s(notes) stat line on Saturday: two completions (none in the first half) in eight passing attempts for 69 yards and one touchdown; nine rushing attempts for 43 yards and a TD; one victory. “Unbelievable, huh?” Broncos coach John Fox asked (via text) after his team’s 17-10 decision over the Chiefs in a game that set back NFL quarterbacking standards multiple decades. Then again, Tebow – somehow – is 3-1 as a starter, and the Broncos (4-5) are now a game behind the first-place Raiders in the AFC West, tied with the Chiefs and Chargers. “It’s crazy,” Chiefs fullback Le’Ron McClain(notes) acknowledged via text, “but he’s a winner. #FACT.”

TWO THINGS I CAN’T COMPREHEND

1. That some dude in a Chargers jersey got so hammered after San Diego’s 24-17 defeat to the Raiders on Thursday night that he woke up the next morning on an 81-year-old woman’s couch in Pacific Beach. And for those of you who missed my Pearl Jam-influenced musical tribute last Friday, let’s rock.

DeSean Jackson’s(notes) contract dispute has become a distraction.
(Getty Images)

2. How DeSean Jackson could screw up so royally (getting himself benched for Sunday’s Eagles-Cardinals game by blowing off a team meeting Saturday) during a contract year – and, perhaps, because he’s preoccupied with his contract status. The week before last in Cleveland, I saw how a player’s frustration over the absence of a new deal reflecting his perceived market value could tear apart a team. Jackson may not be quite the drama queen that the Browns’ Peyton Hillis(notes) is, but the two-time Pro Bowl wideout has clearly been unnerved by his failure to land a new contract to his liking. Consider that in late September, when asked by PhillySportsDaily.com what his motivation for this season was, he answered, “The No. 1 priority is to stay healthy. … Winning is next in that category.”

Thinking that is one thing; admitting it publicly is a form of acting out. I think missing Saturday’s meeting may have fallen into that category, too. The Eagles aren’t without fault here – they’ve gotten a huge bargain on Jackson for the first four years of his career, and the undersized wideout has legitimate reason to fear that a serious injury could thwart his quest for a life-altering, long-term deal. And neither side can be thrilled with what has transpired in 2011: Jackson’s numbers are way down, and he has made much less of an impact than in previous seasons; the Dream Team is 3-6 and virtually out of playoff contention; and relations between Jackson and the organization seem to be degenerating. Jackson’s spokesman, Bobby McRae, told the Philadelphia Inquirer on Sunday that the missed meeting was “an honest mistake,” which would seem to suggest that the dude needs a new alarm clock. Personally, I suspect it’s a mistake that likely wouldn’t have occurred if he were in a position to afford, say, lots and lots and lots of new Rolexes. All I know is that missing the meeting didn’t help his cause come contract time, be it with the Eagles or another employer. And it killed Philly on Sunday, as Maclin, the team’s other explosive wideout, was knocked out of the game 10 minutes in after taking a hard hit to the right shoulder from Cards safety Adrian Wilson(notes). Suddenly, the Eagles’ offense was a lot less potent. Trailing 21-17 late, Michael Vick(notes) was firing passes at Steve Smith and Riley Cooper(notes) before Arizona’s second interception clinched the game. On a positive note, Jackson – who was told to stay home by the Eagles – presumably remained healthy.

OVER-THE-TOP, EPHEDRINE-LACED DIATRIBE BEFORE DAWN

You know how, before you take a standardized test like the SAT, they advise you not to go back and change your answers – that studies supposedly have shown that your first instinct has a higher likelihood of being correct? I think Falcons coach Mike Smith might need a refresher course. On Sunday at the Georgia Dome, on his team’s second possession of overtime against the Saints, Smith sent the punting unit onto the field after a replay review overturned a first-down ruling and set up fourth-and-inches from the Atlanta 29-yard line. Then, over-thinking the situation, Smith called timeout. During that break he decided to go for it, essentially risking everything – the game, the inside track to the NFC South title and possibly more, depending upon how the playoff picture plays out in the final two months of the season – on one play. I like the bravado and the aggressive mentality, but this was an unnecessary and ill-advised move, and I felt that even before Michael Turner(notes) was stuffed for no gain, setting up an easy game-winning field goal drive for New Orleans.

Mike Smith’s untimely decision helped Atlanta fall further behind in the NFC South.
(Getty Images)

For one thing, as my colleague Jason Cole pointed out, this was a panicky move: The Falcons’ defense had actually contained Brees and the Saints’ high-powered offense reasonably well on Sunday, including a three-and-out on New Orleans’ first overtime possession. Secondly, I can’t see any benefit to the team’s psyche by making such a call. Sixteen years ago, in a strikingly similar situation, then-Cowboys coach Barry Switzer was vilified for going for it on fourth-and-1 from his own 29 late in a tie game with the Eagles. Emmitt Smith was stuffed for no gain, setting up a game-winning field goal for Philly, but future Hall of Fame wideout Michael Irvin later said that call “made all the difference” in helping the Cowboys regain their swagger en route to a Super Bowl XXX victory over the Steelers. It was Switzer’s way of convincing his offensive players he trusted them, no matter what, and was willing to take the fall if they couldn’t gain a yard. I’m fairly sure Smith’s faith in Matt Ryan and company in Sunday’s game won’t be viewed as transformative – it’s tough to sell that hard-nosed aura when your quarterback throws 52 times, as Ryan did Sunday. And whereas Belichick’s failed fourth-and-2 call in a Patriots loss to the Colts two years ago was triggered by a fear of a potential Peyton Manning(notes)-led touchdown drive, the Pats had a six-point lead at the time and were in position to close out a game. In Smith’s case, the Falcons would have still been 40 yards away from field-goal range after a successful conversion. What would have happened if, after converting, he then faced a fourth-and-2 on the next series? Would Smith have then punted, or risked everything a second time? My guess is he’d have kicked to Brees in such a repeat scenario and taken his chances. Look, Smith can talk about his history of being on the wrong end of Brees-led, game-winning scoring drives all he wants, and he can insist that “by no means is there a lack of faith in the defense,” but it’s tough not to get that impression. And irrationally distrusting one’s defense is, in and of itself, a lack of boldness. Sometimes, punting is the macho move, as well as the smart play – especially when it’s your first instinct.

TEXT/TWITTER/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK

“Good day at the office for the boys”
– Text Sunday evening from Dallas cornerback Terence Newman(notes), who had two interceptions (one returned for a TD) in a 44-7 victory over the Bills.

“Feels like we’re cursed”
– Text Sunday evening from Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson(notes) after Cleveland’s 13-12 defeat to the Rams, in which Phil Dawson(notes) missed a potential 22-yard, game-winning field goal following a bad Ryan Pontbriand(notes) snap that deflected off Pro Bowl center Alex Mack’s(notes) right foot.

“See the field goal replay? My roommate put me on suicide watch”
– Text Sunday evening from Mack (yes, he was joking).

“God is great. Thanks man”
– Text Sunday night from Carter, accepting congratulations for his four-sack performance against the Jets.

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Michael Silver covers the NFL for Yahoo! Sports. Follow him on Mogotxt, Twitter and Facebook. Also check out ridewithsilver.com. Send Michael a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Monday, Nov 14, 2011