49ers can be best without playing their best

The 49ers started where they left off and have dominated their first two games of the season. AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez

SAN FRANCISCO -- Coach Jim Harbaugh sought to inspire greatness in his San Francisco 49ers by telling them about Muhammad Ali.

By the time San Francisco hammered out a 27-19 unanimous decision over the Detroit Lions on Sunday night, Harbaugh's quarterback, Alex Smith, looked more like the perpetually bloodied Chuck Wepner.

Of course, looks can be deceiving. For as uncharacteristically ragged as the 49ers appeared at times during their home opener at Candlestick Park, they emerged as the strongest, most complete team in the NFL -- the No. 1 contender.

A 13-play, 79-yard drive to the decisive fourth-quarter touchdown left little doubt.

"To be able to do that in a situation like that where you haven't lit up the scoreboard, to get some big third downs, which we struggled with, says a lot about this team," center Jonathan Goodwin said.

Lions safety John Wendling bloodied Smith across the bridge of the quarterback's nose with an unflagged forearm to the face while Smith was sliding near the sideline. Smith responded two plays later by threading a pass to Michael Crabtree for an 11-yard gain on third-and-9. Two plays later, Smith was finding Vernon Davis for the tight end's second touchdown of the game.

"He's as tough as a two-dollar steak," Harbaugh said of Smith. "I grew up eating a lot of them. I know what I’m talking about."

That fourth-quarter drive was telling not just for Smith's ability to take a shot.

We saw Smith continue to play with the confidence he showed during clutch situations last season, notably while outdueling Drew Brees in the playoffs. We saw Davis, he of 292 yards and four touchdowns in the 49ers' two playoff games last season, make the explosive plays that separate him from nearly every tight end. He now has three touchdowns in 2012, half his total for the 2011 regular season.

Those are encouraging signs, but Crabtree's emergence as a reliable third-down mover of the chains, a player willing to fight for the tough catches, can be most significant if sustained.

"I think secretly he hopes it comes down to that," Harbaugh said of Crabtree. "He likes that physical part of the game. He is a tough, tough guy who will suck it up in a heartbeat. He did it throughout the game but especially on that last drive."

It's what the 49ers need to complete their offense.

Last season, Crabtree caught 22 of his 72 receptions on third down, according to ESPN Stats & Information. He finished this game with six receptions for 67 yards, with four of those catches covering 37 yards on third downs alone. Three of those third-down grabs helped the 49ers run more than six minutes off the game clock during that fourth-quarter touchdown drive. Those plays were critical in turning a 20-12 lead into a 27-12 cushion.

San Francisco converted only four of its 11 third-down plays overall. There were some ugly sequences, none worse than the time a third-down snap in the red zone sailed past Smith, leading to a 17-yard loss of field position. The 49ers settled for a David Akers field goal, something they did far too often last season. But when officials flagged the Lions for running into the kicker, Harbaugh made a statement by taking the points off the board.

The 49ers, spurred along by an interference penalty Randy Moss drew in the end zone, needed little time to convert that field goal into Frank Gore's 1-yard touchdown run on the first play of the second quarter. They led 14-6 at that point and never led by fewer than eight points the rest of the way.

"The thing that stood out in our mind was the team really sucked it up down the stretch," Harbaugh said. "And probably the guy who typified it the most was Michael Crabtree. Just sucking it up, getting those big first downs, physical run after catch."

Crabtree remains a bit of an enigma outside the 49ers' locker room. His first three seasons raised questions about his durability and even about his commitment. He has missed preseason games to injury, occasionally hinted at dissatisfaction over his role and even scuffled with Davis back in 2010. But I've always remembered the favorable impression he made with veteran players immediately upon reporting to the team following a rookie contract dispute that lingered well into his rookie season.

"He's a football player," Gore said. "He knows the game, knows how to play the game, play the game right. Football is easy to him. As long as he keeps working hard and do what he do every week, you'll see him grow."

Harbaugh created a stir during the offseason by calling Crabtree's hands the surest he'd ever seen. It was appropriate, then, that all Crabtree could think about after this game was the one pass he dropped. That play could not obscure what Crabtree considers a sign of progress.

"Last year, we faced a lot of Cover 1, a lot of blitzing, a lot of hot routes," he said. "This year, I guess they are respecting the pass game a little bit."

Smith has four touchdown passes in two games, matching his four-game total from last season. Smith and his teammates are picking up where they left off last season, in contrast to so many other contenders.

Look around the NFC at the eight playoff teams from last season. Detroit, Green Bay and the New York Giants are 1-1. New Orleans is 0-2. Atlanta can get to 2-0 on Monday night, but the Falcons cannot play defense the way San Francisco does. Can any team?

The Lions finished with 296 yards after getting 429 against St. Louis last week and averaging 396 per game last season.

The 49ers were not pleased about the late touchdown drive they allowed. They suffered a turnover for the first time in 26 quarters. There were multiple dropped passes.

But those imperfections, like the blood running down Smith's face, could not conceal the most important thing. There was never any real doubt about this game's outcome.