Funny thing, inspiration.

It's one of life's great mysteries. How is inspiration born? What is it that induces us, once in all-too-long a while, to rise beyond our usual limits? How is it that we can simply become, at least for one split-second in time, better than we usually are? And once it comes, where does it go?

There isn't just one answer, of course, and this only deepens the mystery. Necessity might be the mother of invention, but inspiration's got a deadbeat dad. What is it? Love, maybe? How about hate? Fear might work, but don't forget about desperation. The strange truth is that it can come from anything—inspiration merely appears, when skill and emotion intersect at a perfect angle with the task at hand. The trick isn't so much to explain it; the trick instead is to capture it, and just hold on, as long as you can.

Not that you asked, but here's my theory: for Alex Smith, it began with a pitch.

On Saturday night, Smith went out to throw the first pitch at AT&T. He got a nice ovation as he strode to the top of the mound; this showed just how far he'd come, since this was much of the same crowd who'd famously chanted for David Carr. Smith took in the applause, did a showy wind-up, and then uncorked a 50-foot duck, low and outside, which sent the catcher scurrying. Fortunately, the crowd showed mercy, cheering as he raised his arms in sarcastic triumph. But the reporting was notable for the indications that Smith, afterward, was sincerely pissed.

Of course, Smith is well past worrying about the ravings of the blogosphere; indeed, when it comes to shutting out the critics and soldiering on, he's about as good as there's ever been. But I've gotta believe he could sense the snark as soon as he let that pitch hit the dirt. "Just what I need," he must've thought. "Now I can't throw deep in two sports."

They say, though, that disappointment is disguised opportunity. And opportunity, thy name is Buffalo.

The previous week, the Bills had given up 52 points and nearly 600 yards. Those were the Patriots doing the shellacking, but even the awful Jets had put up 48 and nearly 400. Tom Brady and Mark Sanchez had each thrown for 3 TDs, and each had notched a rating of 120.

With maybe some extra motivation, Smith would follow suit, and more.

Smith went deep on the game's third play, though the gain was wiped out by a penalty. Undeterred, he just kept going, hitting Vernon Davis on a throw that went 40 yards through the air. We settled for a field goal when our ballyhooed jumbo-package failed for roughly the millionth time, and halfway through the second quarter the score was stuck at three to three. But then, a breakthrough: a short pass that Michael Crabtree turned into a 36-yard gain, and another bomb to Kyle Williams for the score. That's three 30-yard pass-plays, the Niners' first such plays all year. One more deep one just before halftime, and pretty much the game was over.

For the half, Smith was 12 of 15 for 237 yards and 2 scores. (He'd later add a third, to take his place atop the leaders in quarterback rating.) And from there, of course, the running game ground down the Bills' will, completing the greatest offensive script in the history of the league. Much as they did in the good old days, the Niners used the passing game to seize the lead, and the running game to keep it. But talk about balance: 300 yards both passing and running, for the first (and likely last) time anywhere. And talk about efficiency: 10 yards gained per each and every offensive snap.

And yeah, talk about explosiveness.

How do we go about explaining this? For two weeks, the passing game had been dead, just dead. And now, out of the blue, this long-rumored but never-sighted explosiveness, which, if sustained and coupled with this soul-crushing running game, would make this offense unstoppable. Where on earth did it come from?

We should start by again acknowledging we were playing the Bills. My word, do they stink. Only rarely did Smith ever face any pressure, and his deep receivers were absurdly wide-open. It's tempting to declare that we're now officially an explosive O; but Jets fans likely said the same thing.

On the other hand, previously, Smith had looked like he couldn't connect on a deep pass against a defense of empty chairs. Something now seemed substantially different, and naturally Smith was asked to explain. "[Throwing deep had always] been a priority for us," he insisted, all evidence to the contrary. "There were some shots last week that didn't happen because of how they [meaning the Jets?] were playing. Today, they came up, we took them and were a little more aggressive." I don't know how much of that I'm willing to buy, but I'll definitely buy the final word.

As the Niners piled up win after win, last year and into this one, I was often asked what more I could want. My answer was always the same, more or less. Aggressiveness. Using the available weapons to their greatest extent, making the most of every snap, leaving no big plays on the field. That's the mark of a champion. Oh, no doubt, 13-and-3 is perfectly nice. But in the playoffs, where margins of error are razor-thin, aggressiveness makes all the difference.

At least for a single game, aggressiveness is nothing new. Indeed, last year, we saw much the same thing: we got to 4-and-1 by using a pass-first scheme to throttle the Bucs, 48 to 3. The task now is to sustain this approach. Whether we will—and, yes, whether Smith can—remains to be seen.

Yet it wouldn't be fair to deny Smith this moment. You just can't keep up with this guy. In seemingly equal measure, alternating week by week, he fuels the critics and rewards the faithful. Every time you think he's fading, back he comes again with a vengeance. But never more impressively than this time. This time, see, he wasn't just good. He seemed instead to be something more, something even better than good.

Clearly, Alex Smith was inspired.