The 49ers are for real. That, however, isn't to say they are legitimate Super Bowl contenders. In reality, they are a solid team in arguably the worse division in the NFL. It's not as if San Francisco had to scale a mountainous bar of expectations, considering the Seattle Seahawks won the division last year with an embarrassing 7-9 record.
The 49ers have talent, but are short on experience in several key areas. And they have dethroned Seattle with a serviceable quarterback, Alex Smith, who dazzles between the 20s and fizzles in the red zone.
With the exception of three Ben Roethlisberger interceptions, the Steelers were hanging around with a chance to win because Smith couldn't deliver the clutch throws with the Steelers' backs against the ropes and their chins exposed for much of the first half.
Three times, Smith had an open receiver in the end zone in the first quarter. Three times, he was wild high.
And that's why former coach Mike Singletary yelled and screamed at a quarterback who has underachieved throughout his entire career. But Singletary didn't light a fuse. Instead, he ruffled Smith's already fragile psyche.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree and running back Frank Gore didn't rant and stomp in anger when Smith missed what should have been easy layups. Besides, they understand who their working with. So, they slapped Smith on his back and offered words of encouragement.
It was just enough to get Smith and the 49ers over the hump en route to an impressive 20-3 victory over the defending AFC champions on a Monday night in which a power outage twice delayed the game.
"They did exactly what we thought they would do," Steelers cornerback William Gay said. "They didn't do anything special."
However, this was a special night for Smith.
Smith wasn't spectacular and he didn't put up awe-inspiring numbers. That, however, has been the case all season. But as nose tackle Casey Hampton predicted, Smith managed the offense without committing momentum-shifting, back-breaking turnovers against one of the league's most-feared defenses.
Unlike past years, Smith made the crucial throws. He didn't panic amid the rousing cheers of the scarlet-and-gold clan faithful at Candlestick Park.
Smith delivered his best throws soon after the Steelers narrowed their 6-0 halftime deficit to a field goal when placekicker Shaun Suisham barely booted the ball over the crossbar from 51 yards.
Smith countered the Steelers' scoring drive by orchestrating a 79-yard, 5-play drive that put the 49ers up 13-3 with 3:44 left in the third quarter. He hooked up with tight end Vernon Davis for completions of 31 and 21 yards to give San Francisco first-and-goal at the Steelers 1.
For most 49ers fans, they've seen Smith implode with victory so near. This time, he didn't break their hearts.
"It was amazing what we did tonight," Davis said. "I think Pittsburgh knew we weren't going to give it away. They knew they didn't couldn't break Alex."
While Roethlisberger was scrambling to protect his injured ankle, Smith was surprisingly proficient and poised.
Smith didn't fizzle in the red zone in the second half. He polished off the scoring drive with a 1-yard touchdown pass to Davis Â– one set up by a splendid ball fake that had the Steelers defense chasing shadows and an empty-handed Gore.
Then, Smith made the Steelers pay for a myriad miscues after San Francisco improved its league-leading turnover differential to plus-25 when Roethelisberger fumbled at the San Francisco 17.
"Alex is awesome," wide receiver Kyle Williams said. "He was willing us to victory. Without him, we would be in trouble."
"We believe in him. He has continued to prove us right. It was matter of executing, but it helped that the offensive line kept him clean."
Smith had been sacked 18 times in the 49ers' previous three games Â– including losses to Baltimore and Arizona. The Steelers didn't barely laid a glove on him as Smith rolled out and stepped up in the pocket to complete 18-of-31 passes for 187 yards.
"Smith put the ball where only his guys could make the catch," said Steelers defensive end Brett Keisel. "Sometimes, there's nothing you can do about that.
"Everything was quick. We knew they would get him rolling out of the pocket. At the end of the day, we didn't make enough plays and he did."
As a gimpy Roethlisberger lumbered back to the sidelines with some horrid stat sheet Â– three interceptions, one fumble Â– Smith trotted onto the field in the fourth quarter as if Joe Montana had possessed his body.
Smith was calm. He was confident.
Smith salted away what was easily the 49ers' defining victory in a remarkable resurgence of a franchise that finally put behind it a decade of losing
And when Gore slashed into the end zone from the 5-yard line early in the fourth quarter to bump the Steelers from their temporary stay atop the AFC conference standings, a giddy Smith sprinted toward the sidelines with the biggest win of his career.
So, while the lights when out at Candlestick Park, Alex Smith lit up the Steelers to give the 49e's' faithful reason to believe he has finally arrived.
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