Reputations don't change gradually. It usually takes a big game or play on a nationally televised game to crystallize what had already been building.
Smith got the ball up 20-12 with just over nine minutes remaining. On third-and-7, he found Michael Crabtree for a first down. On third-and-14, he found Crabtree again for a first down. Later in the drive, on third-and-9, Crabtree again converted for an 11-yard gain. The fourth-year pro receiver has never been healthier or more reliable.
During the sequence, Smith took a shot across his face while sliding on a run. His nose started gushing blood, and it didn't particularly slow down until Smith found Vernon Davis for a decisive 23-yard touchdown. The 49ers used up more than six minutes to put the game out of reach.
The team is no longer just surviving despite Smith. He's helped close out two NFC rivals in successive weeks. The 49ers quarterback is now one the team's true leaders and a symbol of this squad's toughness.
"He's as tough as a two dollar steak," Harbaugh said about Smith.
Alex Smith, tough guy. This is not a reputation many people saw coming.Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.