There was nothing artistic about the leap. With 37 seconds to play and the 49ers needing a fourth-down stop to preserve their most important win in nearly a decade, defensive end Justin Smith burst out of his three-point stance, pushed Giants left guard David Diehl into quarterback Eli Manning's sight line, then jumped as Manning tried to zip a pass over his head.
Smith didn't get much air—you would have had trouble sliding a dollar bill beneath his cleats—but he got enough of his thick right hand on the football to force an incompletion and spoil Manning's bid for a fifth fourth-quarter comeback this season. When the ball hit the damp grass in Candlestick Park, San Francisco had a 27--20 victory, its seventh in a row, and the 6'4", 285-pound Smith couldn't contain himself. For the second time in seconds he went—dare we say it?—airborne. "You probably could've gotten two dollars and a quarter under me on that one," he said later, his laughter bellowing through a boisterous locker room.
Unlike Smith, expectations are sky-high in San Francisco, where a once-proud franchise has been reborn under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh. After eight consecutive nonwinning seasons, the 49ers are 8--1, and with only two games remaining against teams with winning records, they have the inside track on the NFC's second playoff seed—and a shot at the No. 1 spot should the Packers, who were undefeated heading into their Monday-night showdown with the Vikings, stumble.
The Niners have come a long way from four years ago, when running back Frank Gore wept after a 9--7 loss to the Ravens. A handful of his fellow Miami alums were on the other side of the field that October afternoon, and he badly wanted to beat them. The loss cut deeply, but it was not as painful as his belief that then coach Mike Nolan lacked confidence in his players. "He just wanted us to stay in the game instead of saying, 'Let's go attack them and see what we can do,'" Gore says. "It ain't about them, it's about us—that's the attitude you have to have. Coach Harbaugh? That's how he and his coaches are. Look at his swag. I love it."
Harbaugh's attitude was on display for the world to see after an Oct. 16 win over the Lions, when he angered his Detroit counterpart, Jim Schwartz, and set off a scrum with an overly enthusiastic postgame handshake and a dismissive pat (or, depending on your point of view, shove) to Schwartz's back. The league frowned on the display—although no fines were levied—but Gore and his teammates ate it up. After nearly a decade of being bullied, it was time to start kicking a little sand of their own.
The 49ers are winning with a formula much older than their 47-year-old coach. They rely on the run on offense (an average of 130.9 rushing yards per game, seventh best in the league), and they stop it on defense (zero rushing TDs allowed). They have given up the fewest points per game (15.3) and through Sunday had the league's best turnover differential (+13), the best average starting field position (their 33-yard line) and the best average opponents' starting position (the 24).
The Niners also lead the league in shoulder chips. "A lot of people doubted us during the week and have been doubting us the whole season," linebacker Patrick Willis, who had his team's only sack of Manning, said on Sunday. "They'll have some excuse as to why the Giants didn't win this game ... to try to take away from us winning."
San Francisco's resurgence is due largely to the play of long-suffering team veterans such as Willis, a first-round draft pick in 2007; tight end and leading receiver Vernon Davis, the sixth overall pick in '06, who put the 49ers up for good on Sunday with a 31-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter; and Gore, a third-round pick in '05 who is on pace for his fifth 1,000-yard season and is just 149 yards away from becoming the franchise's alltime rushing leader. But the team's hunger stems from a roster that is stocked with talented players cast off by other teams because they were perceived to have fallen short of their potential. Consider:
• Smith The No. 4 pick in the 2001 draft was allowed to leave Cincinnati as a free agent in 2008 after he had a career-low two sacks in '07. The Bengals could not have been more wrong about him. Now the 32-year-old has 4½ sacks and is on pace for a fourth straight season of at least six. Smith's sack total suffers because he plays end in a 3--4 scheme, which requires him to keep double teams occupied so linebackers can flow to the ball, but that has not stopped him from making plays. He came up with that key stop on Sunday and also preserved an October win over the Eagles with a strip of wideout Jeremy Maclin with just over two minutes to play.
• Ted Ginn Jr. The wideout, picked ninth overall in 2007, was acquired from the Dolphins for a fifth-round pick before last season, after three mostly unproductive seasons in Miami. Although he has had little impact in San Francisco as a receiver, his two returns for touchdowns (one kickoff, one punt) in the final four minutes of the season opener helped seal a win over Seattle. His 40-yard punt return with 5:43 to play at Detroit also set up the decisive TD.
• Carlos Rogers The rangy cornerback was the ninth pick in the 2005 draft, but Washington let him leave as a free agent before this season. San Francisco scooped him up with a one-year, $4.25 million contract, a deal that has turned out to be one of the best bargains in the league. Rogers, who had never intercepted more than two passes in a season, now leads the league with five picks—including two on Sunday, the second of which set up the winning touchdown.
No one symbolizes the 49ers' revival as well as quarterback Alex Smith, however. Widely regarded as an underachiever since being selected first overall in 2005, Smith has been among the most efficient quarterbacks this season, with a career-high 64% completion rate and the league's second-lowest interception percentage (three in 236 attempts, or 1.3%). Niners coaches went out of their way on Sunday to say that their game plan was to put the ball in Smith's hands—even before Gore left in the third quarter with a mild knee injury—and let him win it. Smith finished 19 of 30 for 242 yards with one touchdown pass and a pick, off a drop by Ginn.
"Alex has been around here seven years and has been dealing with a lot of b.s., people calling him a bust, people not believing in him," says safety Donte Whitner, who left Buffalo as a free agent this year. "But all he needed was a good coaching staff with the right tools and the right techniques, the right reads, to get in and teach him what to do."
Harbaugh & Co. aren't exactly making wine out of water: Players such as Ginn, Rogers and the two Smiths were top 10 picks for a reason. The offensive line also features four starters drafted by San Francisco in the first three rounds, including first-rounders Joe Staley, Anthony Davis and Mike Iupati. Willis is a Pro Bowler, and fellow inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a third-round selection last year, is likely to be one in the future.
Perhaps the Niners haven't gotten more national hype because they haven't blown out opponents. Five of their last seven games have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the Giants could have tied Sunday's game with 2:57 to go had Mario Manningham not dropped a pass after getting behind the secondary on a deep post pattern.
But focusing on those details would be taking the Niners' no-respect bait. If Harbaugh has done nothing else, he has gotten his players to think as one. During the week it's not uncommon to see coaches and players wearing team-issued blue work shirts, such as those you'd see on a mechanic. It's Harbaugh's way of instilling a lunch-bucket mentality.
The 49ers were perceived as anything but blue-collar during their heyday, from 1981 to '98, when they went to the playoffs in 16 of 18 seasons and won five Super Bowls. Many of those clubs had grit, but it was hidden beneath a coating of glitz. They were teams full of stars with high Q ratings—Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig, Steve Young, Charles Haley and, for one year, Deion Sanders—with a charismatic, limelight-loving owner, Eddie DeBartolo Jr., to match.
This team—owned by DeBartolo's sister, Denise DeBartolo York—has all the grit but none of the glam. The heyday teams leaned heavily on the pass; this club is one of only four in the NFL with more rushes than pass attempts this season. What else would you expect from a coach who drives to work in a beat-up blue pickup, and a low-flying defensive end who finds pressure situations as comfortable as his broken-in cowboy boots?
"It's really a team effort," says Justin Smith. "Outsiders might not believe in us, but it's like Coach Harbaugh says, It's what we think inside these walls that matters. We've believed for a while and just have to keep winning through November and December and see how it shakes out."
If it ends up the way Smith envisions, who knows, you might be able to slip three dollar bills beneath his cleats.
AFTER NEARLY A DECADE OF BEING BULLIED, THE 49ERS ARE FEELING CHIPPY: IT'S TIME TO START KICKING A LITTLE SAND OF THEIR OWN.
THE NINERS HAVE DRAWN LITTLE NATIONAL HYPE, MAYBE BECAUSE THEY HAVE ALL OF THE GRIT BUT NONE OF THE GLAM OF THEIR 1980S AND '90S PREDECESSORS.
Photograph by JOHN W. MCDONOUGH
TAKING IT HIGHER Davis skied to cover the last four yards of his fourth-quarter catch-and-run, a TD that helped give the 49ers a win over the Giants and the inside track on their first playoff trip since 2002.
PETER READ MILLER (SMITH)
NEW BOSS, NEW ATTITUDE The feisty Harbaugh (left) has instilled a tough mind-set in his team—and confidence in former No. 1 pick Alex Smith (above), who is finally blossoming into an efficient quarterback in his seventh year in the league.
JOHN W. MCDONOUGH (HARBAUGH)
[See caption above]
PETER READ MILLER
GOLD RUSHERS Justin Smith (top) has helped make the 49ers' defense one of the league's stingiest against the run; Gore (left) leads a ground-heavy offense and is closing in on the franchise rushing mark.