Davis soared over defender for go-ahead touchdown
Justin Smith emphatically pumped his fist following his game-saving defensive gem. Carlos Rogers danced after his second interception. And 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 has been nearly a decade since the streaking 49ers could celebrate like this.
But celebrate is what 8-1 teams do after stretching a winning streak to seven games, particularly when it comes against another NFC division leader in one of the NFL’s most consequential games of the day.
The 49ers have been doing a lot of celebrating lately. But Sunday’s comeback 27-20 victory over the New York Giants was cause for celebration of the highest order.
Smith batted down Eli Manning's pass in the closing seconds of the New York quarterback's latest comeback try, and the 49ers stopped the Giants on fourth down in the final minute of this NFC showdown to boost their chances of a possible first-round playoff bye.
The Niners, off to their best start since 1997, maintained their five-game lead in the NFC West and solidified their No. 2 status in the NFC playoff pecking order behind the undefeated Green Bay Packers, who San Francisco matched Sunday for the most wins in the NFL. Green Bay (8-0) hosts Minnesota on Monday.
The 49ers could be proud of themselves Sunday after the way they rallied for their fourth fourth-quarter comeback victory of the season with two touchdowns in a one-minute span early in the final quarter, then held off the Giants and Manning at the finish.
''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 by a touchdown, Manning completed a pair of long fourth-down passes and got the Giants to the red zone with 1:53 to go. But unlike last week's rally by New York (6-3) at New England, New York couldn’t push the ball into the end zone.
Smith thwarted the final chance with a leaping right-handed smack of the ball on fourth-and-2 from the 10.
The 49ers departed from their usual formula to win this one.
They did it without relying on star running back Frank Gore, whose franchise-record streak of five consecutive games with 100 yards or more rushing ended with a thud. Gore, who entered the game with a sprained ankle, suffered a knee injury during the first half, when he had six carries for zero yards rushing.
Gore was on the field for San Francisco’s first offensive play of the second half, but he went to the sideline after that and returned for just one play the rest of the game. The NFL’s fifth-leading rusher entering the game, Gore finished with zero yards rushing for the first time in his seven-year career.
“The main thing is we got the win,” Gore said. “I thought I wanted to go (in the second half), but my coach told me to shut it down. I wish I could’ve contributed more to the team, but I’ll be alright.”
The 49ers were able to rally from a 13-12 deficit in the fourth quarter even without Gore contributing. San Francisco’s game plan was to come out passing anyway, and quarterback Alex Smith took charge by completing 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards.
The 49ers also got a 17-yard touchdown burst from rookie Kendall Hunter, who picked up the slack for Gore and led the 49ers with 40 yards rushing on six carries. Hunter’s scoring run gave the 49ers a 27-13 lead with 12:21 to play and came one play after Rogers’ second interception.
''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,'' 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 had put the 49ers ahead just 59 seconds before Hunter’s score when Davis vaulted over safety Kenny Phillips and into the end zone from the 4-yard line to complete a 31-yard scoring pass from Smith. The 49ers then tacked on a two-point conversion on a pass from Smith to Michael Crabtree.
“I was actually trying to decide what I wanted to do, whether I wanted to run him over or dive to get in the end zone,” Davis said. “I just wanted to go with the best way to get in, so I decided to jump.”
David Akers kicked four field goals to complement those two San Francisco touchdowns, setting up one of his field goals with a surprise onside kick. Akers also drilled a 52-yard field goal, his franchise-record fifth from beyond 50 yards this season.
This marked the most meaningful win for the 49ers since they 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.
The 49ers are practically certain this season to end an eight-year stretch without a winning record or playoff berth. They are ahead of the Giants (6-3) and New Orleans Saints in the NFC playoff chase and can clinch the NFC West before the calendar turns to December.
''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, Alex 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, a ball that glanced off Manningham’s fingertips.
''I'm very disappointed,'' said Giants coach Tom Coughlin, whose team held a 395-305 advantage in total yards. “'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.''
And then the defense that has led the way for San Francisco most of this season came through for the 49ers when it counted at the end.