The big knock on the 49ers this season has been that they can’t win a big game by relying on Alex Smith at quarterback.
They went a long way toward putting that criticism to rest on Sunday against the Giants. With Frank Gore felled by ankle and knee injuries, the Niners put the game in Smith’s hands and were rewarded with a 27-20 victory that puts them in very good shape in the race for a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs.
Smith completed 19-of-30 passes for 242 yards and a big touchdown to Vernon Davis to lead his team to a victory. The Davis touchdown touched off 61 seconds that changed the game. Smith’s score put them up 18-13, Michael Crabtree’s two-point conversion extended the lead to a touchdown and then Carlos Rogers picked off Eli Manning for the second time in the game to put the Niners back in business deep in Giants territory. Kendall Hunter ran the ball in on the next play and the Niners had a two-touchdown lead to protect.
They did, but just barely. Manning led the Giants to one score and was a Mario Manningham drop away from tying the game in the final minutes. Despite that drop, the Giants converted two fourth downs to move the ball all the way down to the 10 before Justin Smith knocked down a Manning pass to seal the deal for the Niners. That stinginess in the red zone has been par for the course for the Niners this season, although they did bend a bit more than normal against the Giants.
But they won, they beat a good team and they did it by playing a very different game than we’re used to seeing from them this season. Smith wasn’t perfect, but he proved he could handle a heavy load against a stiff pass rush and come out the other side a winner. That’s big, especially with the game giving the Niners a two game plus tiebreak lead on the Giants for a first-round bye come playoff time. There’s much football to be played, of course, but the Niners have to feel great about their position right now.
The Giants, on the other hand, might be hearing some footsteps. The Cowboys played their best game of the season Sunday and have a fairly easy three-week stretch while the G-Men must play the Eagles, Saints and Packers. The two teams will meet in Week 13 and it isn’t difficult to see that one-game division lead disappearing before that game gets underway.
There’s no reason to expect they won’t bounce back, though. They lost a tough game on the road to a very good football team on Sunday and that’s nothing to hang your head about for too long.