GLENDALE, Ariz. — There was a cute little storyline making the NFL rounds the past few weeks. The much picked-upon, oft-mocked NFC West had grown a hard-hitting, defensive identity, with four teams ranked among the league’s top nine in total defense heading into the eighth week of the season.
Leave it to 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh to toss a wet blanket on that hype.
“I don’t know if that’s the perception,” Harbaugh said dispassionately when asked about the division’s new calling card. “No bold statement to make about it.”
The 49ers had no need for bold statements following Monday night’s 24-3 domination of the free-falling Arizona Cardinals at University of Phoenix Stadium. Their play said plenty. In two games against NFC West opponents Seattle and Arizona, San Francisco hasn’t allowed a touchdown and has only surrendered nine points.
So let’s be blunt here: It’s not about the NFC West for the 49ers. They are so clearly the best team in this division that it’s an insult to suggest any other club will contend for this title.
The way this defense is playing, the way Frank Gore is digging tunnels in the turf with his low running style, the way that management has finally assembled a full complement of capable receivers, and the way quarterback Alex Smith has managed the offense while playing in the same offensive system for the first time in consecutive years — it’s about so much more.
“We’re pointing to something much bigger,” 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. “We have a goal and we all think about winning a championship, but we can’t lose focus of what we have to do each and every week.”
San Francisco’s offense was remarkably balanced, efficient and physical against the Cardinals, grinding out 317 yards (113 rushing) against what was supposed to be one of the league’s elite defensive units. The only time the 49ers misfired was due to their own penalties or mistakes, and the only reason the 49ers’ stats weren’t more impressive is because they dialed it back after taking a 24-0 lead early in the third quarter — after pounding Arizona for 226 yards in the first half.
“I was kind of in a good rhythm,” Smith said. “The whole offense was.”
On the other side of the ball, the 49ers defense flat-out embarrassed the Cardinals offense. This wasn’t domination. This was two teams playing in different leagues. Arizona had one play for positive yardage in the first quarter, seven rushing yards in the game and 69 total yards at the half behind its patchwork offensive line, its backup running backs and its skill-deficient quarterback, John Skelton.
Arizona ran the ball just nine times in the game before abandoning that tactic in a vain attempt to cut into San Francisco’s ever-widening lead.
“That was a big test for us tonight, and everyone saw how it went,” Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said. “We have a lot of things we need to work on and fix.”
There are still eight games remaining for San Francisco, and at least four opponents more worthy than Monday’s. There are also those who still doubt Smith’s ability to lead this club to the ultimate prize, despite a 93.9 quarterback rating, which ranked seventh in the NFL, a 66.8 completion percentage, which ranked fourth, and an average gain per pass of 7.51 yards, which ranked ninth entering Monday’s game.
All of those stats improved Monday after Smith completed a ridiculous 18 of 19 passes for 232 yards and three touchdowns, with the lone incomplete pass coming on a drop by tight end Delanie Walker.
“It certainly could have been a better ball,” Smith said. “I put it on his back shoulder, and he kind of made up for it with his great catch along the sideline.”
When reminded of a report this week that he had lost his confidence following a pair of subpar outings by the offense, Smith made light of the notion.
“It was in my closet,” he said. “I found it.”
When he was younger, Smith admits he took criticism a bit more to heart. Now?
“At this point I don’t care,” he said. “I think the guys in the locker room know what I’m about.”
That is the same approach that Harbaugh preached all week: The 49ers don’t care about outside perceptions. The second half of the season is all about building the right chemistry. It’s about internal tweaking. It’s about finding ways to cross the final hurdle that tripped them up last season in an overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC Championship.
San Francisco isn’t concerned with being the class of the NFC West. It’s concerned with being the class of the NFL.