Justin Smith emphatically pumped his fist following his game-saving defensive gem. Carlos Rogers danced after his second interception. And their coach, Jim Harbaugh, was perfectly polite in his postgame handshake before pointing and waving to a cheering crowd as he left the field at Candlestick Park.
It’s been nearly a decade since the San Francisco 49ers could celebrate like this.
Smith batted down Eli Manning’s pass in the closing seconds of the New York quarterback’s latest comeback try, and San Francisco stopped the Giants on fourth down for a 27-20 victory in Sunday’s NFC showdown to boost their chances of a possible first-round playoff bye.
”I just walked off the field with joy inside. Right now, we’re 8-1,” said Rogers, who made two interceptions for the first time in his seven-year career. ”We stuck to it to the end, and last minute of the game made a play.”
With his team trailing, Manning completed a pair of long fourth-down passes and got the Giants to the red zone with 1:53 to go. Unlike last week’s rally by New York (6-3) at New England, Smith thwarted the final chance with a leaping right-handed smack of the ball on fourth-and-2 from the 10.
The 49ers (8-1) – with a commanding five-game cushion in the division – won this one without relying on star running back Frank Gore, whose franchise-record streak of five straight games with 100 yards rushing ended with a knee injury and his first career game with zero yards.
Harbaugh’s NFC West-leading Niners rolled off their seventh straight victory to extend their best start since 1997, and matched the defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers for the most wins in the NFL. San Francisco also leads New Orleans (7-3) for playoff positioning.
”It was a big win for us. As we continue to win we’re getting on a bigger stage, and that’s exactly what we want, we want to continue to climb and get on bigger stages,” quarterback Alex Smith said. ”That’s it. You’re as good as your record, and you’re as good as your last game. And we beat a really good football team.”
Vernon Davis leaped from the 4-yard line over safety Kenny Phillips into the end zone to complete a go-ahead 31-yard touchdown catch early in the fourth quarter.
Kendall Hunter ran for a 27-yard touchdown in the fourth, moments after Rogers made his second interception of the day.
David Akers kicked four field goals, setting up one with a surprise onside kick, and Smith led the 49ers back late yet again.
This marked the most meaningful win for the franchise since the 49ers rallied from 24 points down to stun the Giants 39-38 in the NFC wild-card game here in January 2003 – San Francisco’s last trip to the playoffs.
”I don’t take any credit. It’s these men. These mighty, strong men,” Harbaugh said. ”They deserve the credit.”
After Manning threw a go-ahead 13-yard touchdown pass to Mario Manningham late in the third quarter, Smith went to work. Manning then hit Hakeem Nicks for a 32-yard TD with 8:37 remaining before getting that last chance.
Manning completed an 18-yard pass to Manningham on fourth-and-6 and then a 10-yarder to Victor Cruz on fourth-and-5 on the last-ditch drive. Manning just overthrew Manningham in the end zone with 2:52 left.
”I’m very disappointed,” coach Tom Coughlin said. ”I thought we were in perfect control. I thought we would get there, score and send it into overtime and win it in overtime. We’ve done well in those situations and I expected to do well again.”
While it’s the 49ers defense that has been so dominant stopping the run – now 31 straight games without allowing a 100-yard rusher – the Giants had to think they had solved San Francisco by stopping Gore.
But Smith completed at least three passes to four different receivers, including tight end Delanie Walker’s six receptions for 69 yards.
It was a day of defense and a late-game passing show. San Francisco had 77 total yards rushing to 93 for New York.
”Now teams know what Alex can do under pressure,” Walker said. ”We felt like this was a playoff-caliber game and he came through for us.”
The first half featured seven possessions, five field goals and no punts.
Gore, the two-time Pro Bowler, already was nursing a tender right ankle that has bothered him on several occasions this season before hurting his knee Sunday and watching much of the second half in a red jacket on the sideline.
”Someone twisted me up. I felt like I could have played,” Gore said.
Gore has 7,196 yards rushing and needs 149 more to pass late Hall of Famer Joe Perry (7,344) for the most in franchise history.
Manning finished 26 for 40 for 311 yards and two TDs with two interceptions.
Akers kicked first-half field goals of 36, 52 and 39 yards and then a 28-yarder to open the second half for his third game of the season with four field goals, and he converted from beyond 50 yards for a franchise-record fifth time in as many chances.
Notes: The Giants forced a turnover in their 22nd straight game. … Giants LB Michael Boley didn’t play in the second half because of a hamstring injury. He will be revaluated Monday. … Giants CB Aaron Ross sustained a bruised quadriceps and his status was unclear.