The 49ers are officially no longer under the radar. Withstanding a furious last-ditch charge by Giants QB Eli Manning, who previously had directed five fourth-quarter comebacks this season, the Niners made a giant statement to the national media late Sunday afternoon, solidifying their positioning for a likely No. 2 seed in the NFC behind the Packers with their seventh consecutive victory — their longest win streak since an 11-game streak in 1997.
"I have no idea," QB Alex Smith responded when asked if he believed it was impossible for the Niners to remain under the radar after knocking off Manning and the big-market Giants 27-20. "That's probably a better question for you guys. I'm not thinking about that. It was a big win for us, yeah. Obviously, all week we talked about it. We had the number one (game), we had [Troy] Aikman and Joe Buck doing the game. First time in a long time. The No. 1 Fox crew and all that, the national media here, this and that. So, yeah, we knew as we continued to win, we are getting on a bigger stage, and that's exactly what we want. We want to continue to climb and get on a bigger stage."
The PFW Spin
The stage will be getting bigger and bigger for the Niners the next couple of weeks, reaching its peak on Thanksgiving night in Baltimore, when Jim Harbaugh's troops will attempt to keep working their East Coast magic in a showdown in Baltimore with the perplexing but undeniably potent Ravens. They just happen to be coached by Harbaugh's brother, John.
A closer look at the Niners' cast of characters that took center stage against the Giants is warranted, beginning with the Smith boys — Alex, who has become a polished product with a sterling 11-3 TD-to-interception ratio, and Justin, whose deflection of a Manning pass on fourth down at the Niners' 10-yard line with 37 seconds remaining sealed the deal.
With RB Frank Gore, who had been on fire with five consecutive 100-yard rushing games, battling knee and ankle injuries, the San Francisco offense switched gears and came out of the chute Sunday dependent on Alex Smith's precise, well-aimed passes to a variety of weapons. As he has done all season, Alex Smith efficiently moved the chains and finished the game with a slightly better passer rating than Manning (85.7 to 84.5).
As for Justin Smith, it was not the first time this season his heroics were needed to save the day. In Week Four in Philadelphia with slightly more than two minutes left and the Niners hanging on to a 24-23 lead, Eagles WR Jeremy Maclin looked like he was off to the races with a winning TD catch. But out of nowhere, the man his teammates call "Cowboy" corralled Maclin and forced a fumble — a play that is emblematic of the relentless effort the Niners have displayed since the opening snap this season.
"He's a great player," Jim Harbaugh said of Justin Smith after the game. "He's having a great year, he should be in the MVP category, conversation. He's having that kind of a year for us. He's got a huge heart. That guy is just a big, strong, mighty man and we had a lot of them today."
Three other Niners who stood out on a memorable Sunday were a pair of free-agent additions — CB Carlos Rogers and PK David Akers — and Patrick Willis, who clearly showed why he is arguably the league's most talented linebacker.
Rogers, who arrived in San Francisco with a reputation of having hands of stone, stoned the Giants with his fourth and fifth interceptions of the season.
Akers, who set every kicking record imaginable for the Eagles, continued what has been an outstanding season for the Niners, connecting on all four of his FG attempts, including a 52-yarder (he is 5-for-5 from 50 yards and beyond this season). If that wasn't enough, he added four touchbacks on six kickoffs, a successful onside kick that caught the Giants napping and a tackle in coverage.
Willis was a one-man wrecking crew late in the game when it counted most, dumping Giants RB Brandon Jacobs for a four-yard loss before taking down Manning in the open field one play later.
"Each week we come and we are ready to work," Willis said after the game. "You would think, 'Oh they have a win, they're going to take it lightly,' but we don't. We go out there and we put in the work understanding that we've got to have a great week of preparation, a great week of work to come out and play well on Sundays."
The Niners have been playing as well as any team in the league all season. The big difference with the second half of the season just starting to heat up is that now everybody with a passing interest in pro football is starting to realize just how real a deal they have become.