Around the NFC West: 49ers' big step

To borrow a baseball analogy, the San Francisco 49ers proved Sunday their offense possessed more than a single pitch.

Their surprising tactics during a 27-20 victory over the New York Giants left them with a two-game lead in the race for the No. 2 seed in the NFC. The 49ers also own victories over some of the teams trailing them in the race, notably the Giants and Detroit Lions.

Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com put it this way: "The 49ers ran the ball 52 percent of the time through the first eight games of the season. On Sunday, Smith dropped back to pass 35 times, while the 49ers called just 14 run plays before Smith took a knee three times at the end of the game to run out the clock." Noted: Even one of the team's early "runs" came on a called pass play featuring a scramble from Smith. When Smith later set up a field goal with a run up the middle, I thought the play appeared to have come off by design. The team sent three players on what appeared to be vertical routes along the left side. Smith quickly took off up the middle. That play was not scripted, however. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman said Smith ran upon seeing the Giants' coverage.

Also from Maiocco: Justin Smith and Patrick Willis keyed what might have been the team's most impressive victory of the season. Maiocco: "Smith and Willis are legitimate candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as the 49ers have forged an 8-1 record with seven games remaining. Smith has 4.5 sacks to go along with his two game-clinching plays this season. In Week 4, he wrapped up a 24-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles when he chased down speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and forced a fumble that ended the Eagles' final threat. On Sunday, Smith rushed against Giants left guard David Diehl on the final play after playing every defensive snap in the game. He knocked down Eli Manning's fourth-down pass with his right arm." Noted: Smith and Will should get strong consideration for that award, but players with lots of sacks and interceptions have an easier time getting noticed. Demarcus Ware and Jared Allen jump out as obvious frontrunners based on their sack counts.

Also from Maiocco: The Giants' Justin Tuck told Alex Smith he meant no disrespect with comments Tuck made earlier in the week.

Ray Ratto of CSNBayArea.com says Alex Smith is showing there's no shame in the "game manager" title for quarterbacks. Ratto: "He is about to get the full NFL myth-makeover, because nobody in decades has done what he has done -- toil in abject humiliation for almost twice the length of the average NFL career and then suddenly come up aces and kings. And while he’ll still have the earnest inflections and sincere eyes and aw-shucks demeanor, a little bit of the I-told-you-so will leak out here and there. He has a lot of I-told-you-sos saved up, and now that his allegedly small hands have a firm grip on the second-best team in football, he will let them slip out here and there. He has this coming to him."

Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee says Frank Gore downplayed the severity of his knee injury and said he could have continued playing if Tom Rathman, the running backs coach, had allowed it. Noted: This might be a good time for the 49ers to give Gore the week off from practice and possibly even a game off. He's been injured off and on this season, and durability was already a concern after he missed the final five games to a hip injury last season.

Lowell Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat uses the word "masterpiece" to describe the 49ers' victory. Cohn: "This was a beautiful win for the Niners because the Giants had pulled ahead, as expected, took a gritty, hard-fought 13-12 lead late in the third quarter and it seemed the 49ers were done. Who could blame them? They had held on against these smart, tough, well-coached Giants and it would be no shame to surrender just a little bit. But the 49ers didn't surrender. They came back, Alex Smith throwing a perfect strike to Vernon Davis all alone, and Davis barged ahead like a runaway truck and then jumped in the air and flew into the end zone over the body of Giants safety Kenny Phillips. The man flew. And the Niners took the lead and never gave it up."

Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News calls Justin Smith the 49ers' closer while saying this might have been Alex Smith's finest moment with the 49ers.

Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle offers postgame notes, including one from Giants receiver Victor Cruz, who claimed he got the best of Carlos Rogers throughout the game. Noted: Rogers didn't seem to be the one giving up most of the Giants' yardage, but I'll check out the replay for a closer look.

Also from Branch: Rogers has found his hands.