Once again, there we were.
Oh, sure; the entire night, the Niners had been in total control. The D began with a three-and-out, putting its immediate clamps on yet another high-flying O. Then, speaking of high-flying, our own O took all of 4 plays to drive 70 yards for the game's first score.
More importantly, at least to me, Alex Smith answered my latest critique. At the Lions' 21, the Niners lined up to run the ball, but Smith looked left and saw Vernon Davis in single coverage. Sensing the opportunity for a big play, Smith changed it up and threw a deep strike. And instead of second-and-whatever, it was touchdown Niners.
This interception streak is nice. But that's the stuff of a great QB.
From there, though, we started our weekly field-goal brigade—though the Lions generously converted one of those field goals into a touchdown—while our D gave up a few of its own. By the middle of the fourth quarter, the Lions had cut the lead to eight, and once again, there we were.
Third-and-seven, at the Niners' 24.
There seemed to be very little doubt as to what was about to happen here. First, of course, we'd fail to convert. Lost in the euphoria of the Packers game was the fact that our third-down conversion rate, so deplorable last year, was still an abysmal two-for-nine. And tonight was no better; with the entire receiving corps plagued by a sudden case of the drops—and with our complete aversion to third-and-one—we were sitting ugly at one-for-eight. So we'd miss the third down, and we'd ask our D for one more stop.
One more stop. How many times could we ask for this? In week one, we'd punted an eight-point deficit to Aaron Rodgers, and our D had held on. Now we were about to do the same for Matthew Stafford, he of the 5,000 yards and the 41 touchdowns. No doubt, our D is magnificent; but keeping him out of the end zone all night?
That simply isn't playing the odds.
But once again, there we were.
Smith dropped back and threw short of the sticks—a common practice that contributes mightily to our third-down issues—where Michael Crabtree made the catch. He was hit immediately, but by putting the ball ahead of him, and by keeping his feet just barely in bounds, he gained the first down by a fraction of an inch.
And that, of course, was just the beginning.
After a four-yard loss and an incomplete pass, things were looking even worse: third-and-14, at the Niners' 27. There was just no way, until there was. Smith hit Crabtree again, on a shallow cross; Frank Gore threw a block, and Crabtree got to the 43.
Four plays later, it was third-and-nine at the Lions' 41. With blood streaming down his face, Smith threw short of the sticks again, but to Crabtree again, who twisted and turned through three defenders and picked up still another first-down.
And finally, with the Lions' D completely demoralized, Smith rolled right and tossed a short lob to Davis, who scampered in for the clinching score.
Let's forget about our own D's letdown on the ensuing drive, and the fact that the game was technically in doubt until the onside kick, which we turned into a heartstopping free-for-all. (All hail the vice-like hands of Kyle Williams!) The important point was simply this: instead of leaving the game in the hands of the D, our offense seized a chance to take it itself. And thus, Smith and the O took another step, toward doing the things that great Os do.
And who would've thought that Crabtree would play such a pivotal role? After the holdout, the lost preseasons, the injuries both real and exaggerated—Crabtree seemed stuck in the same middle-ground that defined Smith for so long: not quite a bust, but also not quite anything else. Yet by now it's clear, in Jim Harbaugh's world, everything, everything, turns to gold. And so, despite the additions of Moss and Manningham, Smith looked to Crabtree again and again. And Crabtree, like everyone else who's suffered so much, showed how much he's ready to win.
Ready to win, and there lies the difference—the feeling that drifts around this year's team. Inherent in last year's magic was the prevailing sense that we were winning by the seat of our pants. No question, the play was strong and the coaching was genius, but given the locked-out offseason, it seemed like we were making it up as we went along. Clearly we were legitimate—our success was more than smoke and mirrors—but our acceleration up the learning curve was so dramatic that it felt almost unnatural, out of control.
We might've won, but we weren't quite ready.
Throughout this preseason, we discussed the difficulty of replacing that magic. We acknowledged the distinct possibility that the Niners could be better—especially on offense, where improvement was virtually certain—but still be unable to replicate last year's stunning success. It was this possibility for which I had prepared myself. And my myriad concerns—especially pertaining to Smith, who answers every fucking challenge—were merely borne of an intense desire, to squelch that prospect into oblivion.
We're two games in, and as they say, there's a lot of football left to be played. But we've played two of last year's playoff teams, including last year's very best. And the degree to which we've dominated—"imposed our will," in this week's buzz—leaves only one conclusion now.
We might not be this year's most magical team.
But we are the best, and we're ready to win.