Alex Smith had just engineered the most offense in 49ers history and the best balanced approach the NFL had ever witnessed when the attention started to shift to this week’s NFC championship game rematch against the New York Giants.
“There’s a lot of baggage, a lot of history there,” Smith said. “A little unfinished business, I guess.”
When the Giants (3-2) return to Candlestick Park on Sunday, they might not recognize the 49ers offense. As even San Francisco (4-1) coach Jim Harbaugh admitted: “The talent level has been upgraded.”
The fact that the only question about the 49ers offense this week is Smith’s sprained middle finger — which Harbaugh called “very much a concern” but Smith said wasn’t an issue — illustrates just how much has changed since the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants outlasted San Francisco 20-17 in overtime Jan. 22.
Harbaugh heralded his quarterback Monday, a day after his usually defensive-oriented 49ers whipped the Buffalo Bills 45-3 by gaining a franchise-record 621 yards. San Francisco also became the first team in NFL history with 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the same game.
Harbaugh said Smith “just is a better player” than the former quarterback ever was, even when Harbaugh became the 1995 NFL Comeback Player of the Year in Indianapolis, and has been instrumental in the 49ers’ evolution.
“I can’t tell you how much respect I have for him,” Harbaugh said. “He plays so well, handles himself. He does all the things. I look back and say, ‘I wish I could have done as good a job as he’s done on and off the field.’”
Since last year’s devastating home loss in the NFC title game, 49ers fans could only imagine the possibilities if Smith and the offense ever matched the defense’s dominance.
Imagine no more.
In the grand scheme of a 16-game season, all the yards and all the records still only add up to one win against a Buffalo team that has been embarrassed in back-to-back weeks. Even so, it’s hard to overlook what San Francisco might be capable of if Smith and his receivers can play like this.
Back in January, Michael Crabtree’s one catch for 3 yards accounted for all of San Francisco’s production from its wide receivers. The rest came from tight ends and running back Frank Gore, and even all those only amounted to a dozen for 196 yards.
In the victory against Buffalo, Crabtree had seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, tight end Vernon Davis had seven catches for 106 yards and newcomers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss — who again played sparingly and was only targeted twice — stretched the field enough to open lanes for Smith’s passes.
“He was just on fire and on the money,” said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whom Harbaugh called the “shining light” in San Francisco’s schemes, which also include an ever-expanding role for wildcat quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a version of the Pistol offense Kaepernick ran at Nevada.
“It’s amazing. We were very creative on offense,” left tackle Joe Staley said. “We’ve seen more and more as far as creativity goes on offense. We’re mixing up the packages and personnel and it keeps the defense on their toes. They have to prepare for so much.”
Smith’s resurgence has been one of the main reasons San Francisco can dig deeper into its playbook.
Almost a year to the day since 49ers fans booed Smith relentlessly at Candlestick and cheered for backup David Carr in a 27-24 loss to Philadelphia, Smith’s passer rating is the NFL’s best. Smith (108.7) is ahead of Atlanta’s Matt Ryan (106.1), Houston’s Matt Schaub (105.3), New England’s Tom Brady (102.8) and Denver’s Peyton Manning (101.2), whom the 49ers pursued in the offseason before re-signing Smith to a three-year deal.
In all, Smith has thrown for 1,087 yards and eight touchdowns to one interception to pull the 49ers back into a tie with Arizona (4-1) for the NFC West lead. And after shredding the Jets 34-0 last week, they’ve outscored opponents 79-3 in their last two games heading into the third straight week against a New York team, eclipsing marks that Hall of Famers Joe Montana and Steve Young and Jerry Rice could never even reach in the process.
“That’s a huge honor, a huge honor,” Davis said. “It’s amazing just being a part of it, being a part of something special. And it’s only the beginning. That’s the way I feel.”
NOTES: RB Brandon Jacobs, who practiced throughout last week, is “still not quite there” in his rehabilitation from a left knee injury that occurred in the preseason, Harbaugh said. Jacobs will be questionable to make his 49ers debut again this week against his former team. ... Harbaugh, unprompted, praised Moss’ contributions and said they often don’t show up in statistics, saying “it’s just a matter of time before we see the big-catch day that everybody seems to always pin their evaluations on.” Moss was targeted twice in the last two games and caught one pass for 11 yards against Buffalo. ... Harbaugh said the 49ers had until 1 p.m. local time Tuesday to activate LB Clark Haggans, who has served his three-game suspension relating to a 2011 DUI in Arizona.