Crabtree had leaping touchdown catch called back
One game into their 10-day road trip, the 49ers already have a very nice gift to take home and put on the shelf. And they've left room in the suitcase for one more after overcoming an ugly start and coming on strong with a fourth-quarter rally Sunday afternoon to put away the Cincinnati Bengals 13-8 at Paul Brown Stadium and take over sole possession of first place in the NFC West.
Kendall Hunter ran seven yards for the game's only touchdown with 3:59 to go, culminating a 10-play, 72-yard drive that put the Niners ahead for the first time in the game and sent them on their way to a comeback victory to begin their extended stay in the Buckeye State on an upbeat note.
The 49ers (2-1) haven't had many wins on East Coast time lately – this is just their fourth victory in their past 23 road games – and it looked like they'd forgotten to pack their West Coast offense. San Francisco didn't even cross midfield for the first time until midway through the third quarter.
But quarterback Alex Smith and the team’s struggling offense got it done when it counted.
Trailing 6-3, the 49ers put together their only drive of the game for the winning score, stunning a crowd of 43,363, the smallest for a Bengals home opener in 30 years.
Now, there's something to write home about.
''To become that type of team that wins on the road and take that next step, you have to win like this,'' said Smith, who was 4 of 5 for 48 yards on the winning drive. ''I think guys were frustrated, but in a good way. They were frustrated and fired up. They wanted the ball back.
''That was different. A lot of times, I've been on teams where it's kind of, 'Here we go again,' and this is a lot different.''
Smith shrugged off a poor start to complete 20 of 30 passes for a season-high 201 yards, managing the game and protecting the football despite being sacked five times and hit eight times by a Cincinnati defense that shut down San Francisco’s running game and came after Smith all day.
It was a satisfying start to the 49ers' visit to Ohio. They'll practice at Youngstown State the next few days, then head to Philadelphia for their next game as the only NFC West team with a winning record three weeks into the season.
What do they think so far?
''It's a lot different over here,'' Hunter said.
Sure is. In a lot of ways.
There were plenty of empty seats at 65,500-seat Paul Brown Stadium, the Bengals' smallest crowd for a home opener since they played at Riverfront Stadium in 1981. Cincinnati (1-2) was limited to a pair of field goals by Mike Nugent during rookie quarterback Andy Dalton's first dismal performance.
Dalton threw two interceptions in the fourth quarter, the first of his career, and had just 67 yards passing in the second half after a promising start.
The 49ers sent that small crowd heading for the exits when Reggie Smith intercepted Dalton's throw with 1:45 left. Carlos Rogers had intercepted Dalton two minutes earlier to set up a 53-yard field goal by David Akers that gave the Niners a 13-6 with 2:16 to play.
''We started fast, which is what you come out to do,'' said Dalton, who led the Bengals to an opening field goal, completing each of his first five passes during a 76-yard drive that stalled after Cincinnati had reached first-and-goal at the San Francisco 6. “'We were flat after that. We couldn't do the things we wanted to do.''
Akers kicked two field goals for the 49ers, who also got a big performance from tight end Vernon Davis, who finished with game-high totals of eight receptions for 114 yards. Davis had big-play receptions of 39 and 20 yards to set up San Francisco scores in the second half.
After Smith’s clinching interception, the 49ers burned the clock with three running plays, and punter Andy Lee ran out of the end zone for a safety to finish it with 2 seconds left.
Those last few minutes by the 49ers decided an ugly game overall: 12 punts and two field goals combined through three quarters. Cincinnati’s go-ahead field goal early in the fourth quarter was set up by a fumble deep in San Francisco territory by Frank Gore, who was limited to 42 yard rushing on 17 carries and was on the bench when the game was being decided in fourth-quarter crunch time.
“It hasn't been like this in here for a long time,'' cornerback Shawntae Spencer said. ''On the road, you want to keep it close and try to steal it late.''
The late drive did it.
Smith was under constant pressure and the 49ers blunted drives with penalties, finishing with 12 penalties for 70 yards. Kevin Huber's punts pinned them at their 10, 11, 12, 14 and 17, leaving too much ground for one of the NFL's least-productive offenses to cover.
Also, the 49ers were missing receiver Braylon Edwards, who hurt his right knee during an overtime loss to Dallas last Sunday, when San Francisco allowed the Cowboys to rally from a 10-point deficit in the final 11 minutes of regulation to win in overtime.
The 49ers pulled a play from deep in their book to set up the go-ahead touchdown. Smith faked a handoff and rolled to his right, then turned and threw back to his left, where Davis was open for the 20-yard catch-and-run that put San Francisco in position to win it.
“I had the call on and I saw they were bringing pressure, so I really tried to sell the fake,'' Smith said. ''He made a great play with the ball in his hands.''
The Bengals were at full strength after deciding to let receiver Jerome Simpson play. He missed two days of practice because he's the focus of an investigation into a drug shipment to his home. He got into the game on the opening series and finished with one catch for 6 yards. Coach Marvin Lewis decided a couple hours before the game to let Simpson play.
Dalton had passer ratings above 100 in his first two starts, but repeatedly forced throws against the 49ers' defense. He went 17 of 32 for 157 yards and a rating of 40.8 as the Niners took the game away from the Bengals at the end.