Now that 49ers fans have recovered from Alex Smith’s stirring final act against the New Orleans Saints, which turned an eerily quiet Candlestick Park crowd into a bedlam of unexpected elation, the bigger story can be told.
San Francisco’s Super Bowl hopes are alive and well because the trenches are once again their favorite playground. Sure, Alex’s impersonations of Steve Young and Joe Montana with the season hanging in the balance prompted teammate Justin Smith to say, “He’s no game manager, he’s a baller.”
But it’s the physical prowess of the offensive and defensive lines that has morphed the 49ers into NFL heavyweights.
Just like it’s been for their quarterback, the learning curve may have been painful, but look at the end result. Anthony Davis, who along with Mike Iupati, was thrown into the starting lineup as a rookie, told me, “Last year was the worst thing any 20-year-old could go through, outside of military combat.”
This season, with the offensive line anchored by former Pro Bowl center Jonathan Goodwin and the return of star left tackle Joe Staley, who missed much of 2010 with a broken leg, Davis said, “We’re like five brothers. Just by looking in each other’s eyes, you know when someone needs encouragement and when they need a kick in the butt.”
The defensive front seven, once known for its toughness against the run but lacking a great pass rusher, is now so solid across the board — with rookie phenom Aldon Smith leading the way — that Ahmad Brooks, third on the team with seven sacks, can’t even get on the field in obvious passing situations.
Of course, while punishing safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson may remind the Faithful of glory-day thumpers Ronnie Lott and Carlton Williamson, the 49ers won’t clear that final hurdle without a better pass defense than they showed against Drew Brees.
Ill-suited to match up man-to-man with New Orleans’ bigger receivers, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio played more zone coverage and got burned for 462 yards.
Eli Manning’s receiving corps is almost as explosive. Plus, the Giants’ leading rusher, Ahmad Bradshaw, who missed the November game in S.F. with a stress fracture, is back at full speed. Meanwhile, Frank Gore, held to zero yards on six carries in the first meeting with New York, appears to have overcome most of his lingering knee problems.
Giants linebacker Michael Boley, who pulled a hamstring against the 49ers in the first meeting, is guaranteeing a win in the rematch. Vernon Davis countered by saying, “I prayed for the Giants to win in Green Bay.”
The 49ers have come farther than anyone could have imagined. They are playing with house money. As Anthony Davis so aptly put it, “We’re on our way to where we want to be. Far from being where we need to be. But we’re going in the right direction.”
KGO (810 AM) Sports Director Rich Walcoff can be heard weekdays from 5 to 9 a.m. on the KGO morning news. He can be reached at RichWalcoff@gmail.com.
49ers vs. Giants
WHEN: Sunday, 3:30 p.m.
WHERE: Candlestick Park
TV: Fox (KTVU, Ch. 2)
RADIO: KNBR (680 AM), KSAN (107.7 FM)