Their worst start in 31 years behind them, the San Francisco 49ers are pinning their postseason hopes on an unlikely starting quarterback.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers also feel their young signal-caller can help them return to the playoffs.
Since opening with five losses, San Francisco (3-6) has fought back into the NFC West race by winning three of four. Smith, signed six days before the 49ers’ season opener, has been a major contributor during this turnaround.
A week after David Carr(notes) replaced the injured Alex Smith (separated shoulder) in a 23-20 loss at Carolina, coach Mike Singletary gave Troy Smith his first start with the 49ers - and third of his career - in an Oct. 31 matchup with Denver in London. He sparked a three-touchdown fourth quarter that helped San Francisco beat the Broncos 24-16, then threw a go-ahead TD to Michael Crabtree(notes) with 2:10 left in regulation last Sunday in a 23-20 overtime victory over St. Louis.
Smith has thrown for 552 yards - including a career-high 356 against the Rams - without a turnover in two starts.
“He’s had a big part in us winning these last two games, and you want to keep that going and see how much is there,” said Singletary, who announced Monday that the 2006 Heisman Trophy winner will start Sunday even though Alex Smith has been cleared to play.
“Our team understands that I’m going to go with the guy that is winning right now, the guy that has the hot hand and has made the difference in the past two weeks.”
While Troy Smith has helped the 49ers move within two games of the West lead and inch closer to their first playoff appearance since 2002, Freeman has raised expectations for a franchise targeting its first postseason berth in three seasons.
Selected in the first round last year, the former Kansas State standout has led fourth-quarter comebacks in six of his nine career victories, and he has 12 TDs with just five interceptions this season.
Freeman threw for 241 yards with two TDs and no interceptions in Sunday’s 31-16 victory over Carolina, recording the best passer rating (134.2) of his career.
“When we took over this program (following the 2008 season), me and (general manager) Mark Dominik sat down together and said we know it’s a lot easier to win with a quarterback,” coach Raheem Morris said.
Freeman will try to help the Bucs (6-3) post their first victory in nine trips to San Francisco since Oct. 26, 1980, but he knows that will be a challenge against a 49ers defense that has limited its last four opponents to 322.0 yards and 17.0 points per game.
“Their front seven is extremely physical, and they have (linebackers Patrick) Willis and (Takeo) Spikes in the middle - both those guys are playing tremendously well,” Freeman said. “… It’s going to be crucial that we identify the front that they’re in and get everybody in the offense on the same page.”
That hasn’t been a problem for the Bucs’ running game, averaging 140.0 yards in the last four games.
Undrafted rookie LeGarrette Blount(notes) has rushed for three TDs and 329 yards during that stretch, forcing Cadillac Williams into mostly pass-blocking duties. The veteran back, though, proved he can still contribute with the ball, running for 62 yards, including a 45-yard TD last Sunday.
“I would love to be out there to get more carries. But it is what it is,” Williams said after Tampa Bay rushed for a season-best 186 yards. “We’re winning. We’re 6-3, and it’s just a pleasure to see young guys out here playing good.”
With Troy Smith facing a talented secondary - Tampa Bay is tied for second in the league with 14 INTs - Frank Gore(notes) could get plenty of carries. He is averaging 114.0 yards during the team’s 3-1 surge.
“When we go out there, it’s just like we’re little kids,’ Gore said. “It feels good, because going back to the first eight games, something was always going wrong for us.”
San Francisco is 15-3 in this all-time series, winning 11 of 12 at home.
The Bucs are trying to win four road games for the first time since going 5-3 in 2005.