Forty-Niners Faithful, you are now free to think the heretofore unthinkable. The Niners could very well be playing in the Super Bowl on Feb. 5 in Indianapolis.
Fresh off their most impressive and important victory in nearly a decade, San Francisco once again holds the NFC’s coveted No. 2 seed, owning a tiebreaker over the New Orleans Saints. Maintaining that slot guarantees that ever important week off in January — and at least one home playoff game.
Given the 49ers’ difficulties in recent road losses at Baltimore and Arizona, the prospects of resting up to face, say the Saints or Lions at Candlestick Park, rather than in a dome are enormous.
So too are the adjustments Jim Harbaugh and his staff made after watching Alex Smith get pummeled by the Ravens and Cardinals. Not only did the offensive line do a tremendous job picking up Pittsburgh’s notorious zone blitzes and effectively run block for Frank Gore, Smith greatly elevated his game with quicker reads and better throws.
After a jittery start, Smith sealed the win by completing five straight passes late in the third quarter. It was a remarkable sequence: First he floated a perfect 31-yard pass to Vernon Davis, then a 9-yard hitch to Michael Crabtree, a 27-yard screen pass to Kendall Hunter, a beautiful 21-yard play-action throwback connection with Davis, followed by another play-action pass 1-yard touchdown to Davis.
A justifiably proud Harbaugh got more than a little carried away insisting Smith deserves to go to the Pro Bowl.
Hey coach, check your ballot of NFC quarterbacks: Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tony Romo, Matt Stafford, Matt Ryan and Eli Manning. But just talking about Smith making the Pro Bowl without anyone laughing is proof enough how far he has come.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ top-ranked defense keeps getting better. Not only did No. 7 overall pick Aldon Smith register 2½ sacks, plus a forced fumble in the fourth quarter Monday night, his 13 sacks on the season break Charles Haley’s rookie team record and leaves him only 1½ sacks shy of Jevon Kearse’s all-time NFL rookie mark.
Amazingly, the speedy 6-foot-4, 260-pound linebacker consistently overpowered Steelers’ 6-foot-8, 345-pound offensive tackle Max Starks with bull-rush moves and wickedly effective stunts with Justin Smith.
A newfound pass rush, coupled with the league’s best run defense, the NFL’s leading punter Andy Lee and top kicker David Akers (his 38 field goals are just two shy of the NFL single-season record), suddenly puts the 49ers on everyone’s don’t want to play list.
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.