Last Sunday they played Improbable Bowl I at Ford Field in Detroit, and nothing was more improbable than that Alex Smith was in it.
There, in the midst of downtown Detroit, stood the undefeated Lions hosting the once-defeated 49ers, a resurrection of two proud football franchises that proved Lazarus' return had nothing on the NFL. Yet, what was more improbable: that Jim Schwartz's Lions had won five straight before losing to San Francisco or that Jim Harbaugh had found a way to win five of his first six games — including the 25-19 win over the Lions — as an NFL head coach with Alex Smith as his quarterback?
The answer clearly had to be the victorious Harbaugh, and that's no knock on Schwartz, who has done a better job rebuilding Detroit than Mayor Dave Bing has.
The difference is that, over the past several years, the Lions found a dominating defensive lineman to anchor their defense in Ndamukong Suh and a future franchise quarterback in Matthew Stafford. Frankly, if you know what you're doing (and Schwartz does), that's how it should be when you've played so badly that one year you get the first pick in the draft and the next you get the second.
Smith, on the other hand, has been the poster boy for the 49ers' decade-long frustrations. Although not the only reason the 49ers haven't made the playoffs in nine years while posting a 51-83 record, Smith had been there for the last six and done little to change things after having been taken in the first round on the strength of winning 21 of the 22 games he started at Utah.
What 49ers fans came to learn was that Utah's opponents aren't in the NFL, and they were thinking maybe Smith shouldn't be, either. At least that's how it seemed until Harbaugh arrived in January, fresh from resurrecting Stanford's football program, and took as his first order of business convincing Smith to stick around.
This shocked many Bay Area sports observers, but Harbaugh had seen enough to give Smith a one-year contract worth $5 million and a promise that he would at last have a chance to be what he thought he could be — a winner in the NFL.
Some would argue this has been accomplished thus far on the strength of a rock-ribbed defense, opportunistic special teams and an offense dominated not by Smith's arm but by the legs of RB Frank Gore — they would be right. Just as they would be right to credit Harbaugh for much of the Niners' turnaround.
Yet, truth be told, the 49ers gained admittance to Improbable Bowl I because Alex Smith had come through, as well, throwing only one interception in five weeks (in the past he'd done it in five minutes) while completing nearly 66 percent of his throws as he directed an offense that one way or another was scoring nearly 30 points per game (28.4, to be precise).
That they did much of that the old-fashioned way (by knocking defenses' blocks off with power running) is beside the point because the fact is they couldn't have done it if the new Smith had played like the old Smith.
For both the Lions and the 49ers, it's still a long trip from Improbable Bowl I to Super Bowl XLVI, and probably a longer one for Smith than for Stafford. But there is no denying one thing: Jim Harbaugh has resurrected not just a football franchise this season, but also its quarterback.