SAN FRANCISCO -- 49ers tight end Vernon Davis told me last week that San Francisco's coaches saw some things in the Giants' defense that left the 49ers with some matchup advantages in the passing game. So, based on quarterback Alex Smith's history, you'd assume there were three or four plays up coach Jim Harbaugh's sleeve that he'd unveil to win some individual battles.
Those matchup advantages turned out to be the fundamental game plan. Smith came out slinging and never stopped. And the 49ers beat the Giants to improve to 8-1 -- the second-best record in the league. The victory over a high-quality team didn't hinge completely on Smith's solid performance but San Francisco proved it no longer has to win -- or try to -- in spite of Smith.
They'd played it close with Smith leading into this game between two of the better teams in the league. His attempts (206 coming in) were the fewest in the NFL by a quarterback that has consistently started from Week 1.
Sure, San Francisco has enough of a cushion in the NFC West to float a trial balloon, but this wasn't about that. This was having the faith in Smith to lead them to victory and they turned him loose. He threw the ball 30 times, completing 19 passes for 242 yards, a touchdown and an interception. He's thrown more times in a few games this season but never did so much of the game plan hinge on his arm and never had he looked so smooth.
The offense ran through Smith. Running back Frank Gore was ineffective before a knee injury (that he doesn't think will keep him out of action next week against Arizona), sidelined him for the second half. Gore said he could play but the staff knows it will need him later. And although the game was a toss-up when Gore went down, there were clearly was a feeling that Smith had this.
"Alex knew he's at his last straw," Davis said of the maligned quarterback, who was re-signed as a free agent this offseason to be more of a bridge to rookie Colin Kaepernick. "He knew he needed to take off."
"I just saw the one where I got called a game manager or whatever and this and that," Smith said. "I could really care less, honestly. That is the honest truth. It feels good to be 8-1. I managed myself into a victory. That's all I care about."
What happened Sunday was about Smith but then again, it wasn't. The 49ers learned they can win with their quarterback. They learned that they can win without their running back. They also learned that Davis no longer has to be the point man of their receiving attack. San Francisco beat a good team by showing some finesse to go with the brute muscle it flexed on seven victims prior to Sunday.
That's the type of psychological edge a young team that's been used to losing needs to persevere.
San Francisco also won because its offensive line kept Smith upright; backup running back Kendall Hunter was more than adequate in stepping in for Gore; cornerback Carlos Rodgers had two interceptions and defensive end Justin Smith batted down Eli Manning's fourth-down pass in the waning seconds with New York knocking on the door to tie.
Beating the Giants will, in the eyes of some, be a signature win for the 49ers. They've beaten other good teams like Cincinnati, Detroit, Tampa Bay and Philadelphia, but those teams got taken down a peg this weekend. San Francisco, meanwhile, went toe-to-toe with a team that's on top of the NFC East, has rallied in big games and is among the NFC's best.
The 49ers also capped a huge day in which the entire NFC West, which is insurmountably behind San Francisco, won. Those types of days for the rest of the division won't last much longer. Besides tough games against AFC North bullies Baltimore and Pittsburgh, the 49ers' remaining games are within the lackluster division that so many of us thought St. Louis would win because it had the best quarterback.
It still might but it doesn't have an overall team comparable to the 49ers. Few teams do. This team isn't a hoax. It's not Buffalo or Philadelphia or even San Diego. San Francisco will be hosting a playoff game because it is a team to be reckoned with -- in part because its quarterback is an asset.