It wouldn't be enough. The most electrifying game by a Niner quarterback since our long-forgotten heroes of a long-forgotten era (the years B.A., Before Alex). But it wouldn't be enough.

Still wildly undisciplined, we'd just committed our 14th penalty, and this one was clearly the worst. Sure, we'd already wiped out two touchdowns of ours, and three flags helped the Rams score one of their own. But now, late in the game and down by four, we'd just wiped out our THIRD score, a spectacular 43-yard touchdown pass, nullified by a holding call on our left tackle. (A left tackle with a broken leg, but still.) With the game in the balance, along with what little remained of the season, it was third-and-32.

Troy Smith had been magnificent. But it wouldn't be enough.

After Smith saved the game in London, Mike Johnson promised to open the offense, at least "a little bit." That promise was borne of necessity, of course--all those still supporting Mike Singletary's run-first lunacy, please see yourselves out--but it was encouraged by Smith's particular skills. Whereas Alex was always so damned afraid, bailing out at the first sign of trouble, Troy had that swagger, that moxie, whatever. Alex would feel the rush and run for the hills; by contrast, Troy would move but focus downfield, never giving up on a play.

"He's a playmaker," as Vernon Davis would put it. "He's not afraid to let the ball go." And despite Singletary's just-punt-it approach, Johnson, it seemed, would encourage him. Smith himself didn't hesitate to raise expectations: "We will do some things, hopefully, that will be eyebrow-raising for you."

Of course, we'd heard some similar promises before. But now, with Smith, the Niners delivered.

Including the first, a 32-yard strike to Davis, Smith made play after play after play, and made each one the very same way. He moved out of the path of the Rams' many blitzes, waited for his targets to find the deep gaps in the Rams' strung-out secondary, and fired startlingly accurate passes. Sure, that style of hangin' in there--of extending the play to the very last tick--was partly why he was hit with five sacks; not all were the fault of Kwame-imposter Anthony Davis. But it was ENTIRELY why he made all those big plays. Distributing the ball with remarkable equity, he'd finish with an astonishing 13 yards per attempt and 21 per completion, while racking up 356 yards and a rating near 117.

Reporters scrambled through their media guides to find the last time a Niner QB played a game like this. Needless to say, they didn't find one from Alex Smith, whose Niners career at last was over.

Of course, there was still the matter of this must-win game.

Which, by the way, we were losing.

Despite Troy's heroics, we were stuck on only 13 points. Sure, the penalties hurt. But even with Johnson's more aggressive approach, this still, alas, was Singletary's team. On three straight drives in the second and third, our last four plays were run, run, pass, punt. After those, our NEXT three drives all went three-and-out. And as different as the Troy era seems, let's not look past the decidedly Alex-y third-down "success rate": by the end, oh for 11.

And despite Troy's heroics, here we were. Third-and-32. Season on the line.

We hadn't seen ANYTHING yet.

Having already thrown three TD passes that didn't count, Smith had every reason to throw up his hands and call it a day. After all, as he'd put it, "There's not too many plays in the playbook where you say, 'This is for third-and-35.' " So, naturally, he and Frank Gore decided to invent one. Smith looked for Gore along the left sideline, and Gore took a short pass 14 yards, setting up an equally impossible fourth-and-18. So Smith and Gore ran the same play AGAIN, but deeper this time, and gained 22. And before you could put your eyebrows (and jaw) back in place, once again Smith dodged the pressure and fired a strike, to Michael Crabtree for the touchdown. (And THIS time, no flags.)

Of course, we weren't out of the woods. Though our D had done well to keep us close, it isn't known for sealing the deal. The Rams drove for the tying score, and when they won the toss, it looked like death. But the D came up with a three-and-out, and Gore (and, to be fair, a questionable PI call) took care of the rest.

And so Smith did enough after all. Enough to win a game that was lost. But also enough to make you believe.

Afterward, Singletary seemed to be wrestling with a strange contradiction: by luck, fate, or the cross he wears, he'd stumbled into Smith, but Smith's success only proves his irrelevance. Though praising Smith, he couldn't help but stick to his empty guns, as if to remind us he's still here for some reason. "I like it when it works," he said, gently poo-pooing Smith's aggressive (modern? effective?) style. But Gore spoke as if he'd seen the New World, and now there was no going back. "It's nice to be dangerous, really dangerous." You said it, Frank. Sorry the journey took so long.

Let's pause for some perspective, though. We're three-and-six, still tied for last. We still make way too many mistakes, and now the offensive line is a mess. Stay grounded. Even here in the NFC West, the playoffs are still a very long shot.

But we saw something Sunday. Something only vaguely familiar.

What's it called again? Oh yes, that's it.

"A lot of [quarterbacks] can play when things go like the coaches say they will," Paul Hackett once said. "The great ones can adapt. The great ones can keep a team's head above water when everything is turning to shit out there."

Troy Smith is just two starts into his Niners career, and it's much too early to pronounce him great. But it doesn't get much shittier than third-and-32, season on the line. And no matter what should become of this year, let's never forget what we saw in that moment. What we haven't seen for a very long time.