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.