After two uninspiring wins--grinding it out against two bad opponents--my dissonance reached a critical mass. With our aerial assaults against Philly and Tampa now long forgotten, much was said and written about Jim Harbaugh's retrograde offensive approach. One writer put it this way: "In a pass-happy sport, Harbaugh has tweaked the West Coast offense to feature power running first." (I found this choice of words somewhat bemusing, as a West Coast Offense that features power running first is merely "tweaked" only if, by "tweaked," you mean "flipped completely upside down.") And according to Niners-QB-turned-ESPN-blowhard Trent Dilfer, Harbaugh would stick with this approach forever: "I don't think as long as Jim Harbaugh is coaching that team you're going to see a huge difference in philosophy. This is a guy who believes in establishing the line of scrimmage, shortening the game and leading with the run."

This, of course, is not what I had in mind when I was breathlessly celebrating Harbaugh's arrival. After all, my opposition to a run-first offense is what had led me to beat my drum, week after week, for the tarring-and-feathering of the man he'd replaced. A pass-first offense is more than the surest route to success in today's league; it's also the surest sign of the restoration of our glorious identity. Proof that Harbaugh truly is a disciple of Walsh.

Yet the contradiction was inescapable: Harbaugh's run-first offense was winning. Harbaugh's schemes, miles ahead of the cavemanism of recent years, actually succeeded in controlling the action. We were winning precisely the way that a run-first offense wins in theory but never consistently wins in fact: we were playing into the strength of our D, limiting the other team's chances to score, and scoring just enough for ourselves. The wins were ugly, but there were just so many!

This still wasn't Niners football, yet it was winning, again and again. In light of those wins, I trusted Harbaugh, yet I couldn't imagine this lasting forever.

Like I said, dissonance.

In the week leading up to the Giants, however, two developments augured relief. First, Frank Gore, who in those two sloggers had rushed 50 times--for nearly 250 yards--began his annual injury drama. Gore might be the greatest rusher in franchise history, but our addiction to him tends to carry a price. When he's healthy, it's just too tempting to use him like the bell-cow that he is. When he's hurt, the offense tends to open things up, and it tends, dare I say, to go for the throat.

Second, of course, the Giants questioned Alex Smith.

When Justin Tuck asserted that Smith's job was merely "not to lose"--implying that Smith was a dreaded "game manager"--he wasn't saying anything outlandish. Indeed, when Harbaugh asserted earlier that Smith was an "elite quarterback," he was clearly trying to have it both ways. By definition, when your offense is run-first, you're asking your passer to manage the game. A game manager can be good, or even very good; also by definition, though, a game manager can never be elite. Elite quarterbacks might be tough to describe, but these days they've got one thing in common: they don't play second-fiddle to running backs.

So Tuck's statement was supported by the evidence. But naturally Harbaugh, whose loyalty is exceeded by only his competitiveness, would take it as a challenge. "I'll check it out," he said with a grin, and thus the stage was set. On Sunday, much to my own relief, Harbaugh would prove that Dilfer was wrong.

And Smith would take his biggest step yet, toward proving that Harbaugh might've been right.

In the first half, while our D was holding the Giants to two field-goals, Smith was doing his best impression of a Jugs machine. Of the 11 plays on our first drive, Smith threw on 9. Of our 26 total offensive plays, 20 of ‘em were passing plays. And Smith was sharp, once again making smart decisions and accurate throws, even when going deep. Oh, sure, a touchdown would've been nice, and maybe we would've gotten one if Ted Ginn hadn't tried to catch a ball with his face. But there was no mistaking the "huge difference in philosophy," or the fact that Smith, with a huge assist from this night-and-day offensive line, was up for the task.

In the second half, more of the same, with Smith passing on six of the nine plays that led to another field-goal by the incredible David Akers. The Giants managed to take the lead, but Smith showed his newfound poise as he hooked up with Vernon Davis on a 30-yard score and with Michael Crabtree for the 2-pointer. After a quick pick by the equally incredible Carlos Rogers, Kendall Hunter seemed to blow the game open. But the Giants went on to hold the ball for almost the entirety of a nerve-wracking fourth quarter, erasing half the deficit before the simply ubiquitous Justin Smith got a paw on a last-minute fourth-down pass, a handful of yards from the tying score.

Afterward, the Niners couldn't contain their conceit. Harbaugh defiantly reiterated that Alex Smith was "a top-flight quarterback" who just "keeps proving it." Smith observed that he'd "managed" yet another victory, giving his critics a cheeky eff-you, which those critics, myself included, couldn't help but admire. Is Smith truly an elite quarterback? No. Elite quarterbacks produce yards and touchdowns at rates that Smith might never attain. But this was a genuine milestone. Against a top opponent, Smith directed a pass-first O from beginning to end, and, as Harbaugh said, "he delivered." Smith is good--good enough for us to win--and I was proud to see him prove it.

But I was even prouder to see Harbaugh prove his genuine philosophy. As Greg Roman put it, "we were kind of hoping to keep that a secret as long as we could but I guess it's out of the bag now." Indeed, and thank heavens. Harbaugh didn't "tweak the West Coast offense to feature power running first"; on the contrary, he's preserved Walsh's pass-first vision, but he's added a more powerful running dimension. He still might go run-first at times, perhaps more often than I would prefer. But he isn't hamstrung by some stubborn insistence on "leading with the run." Instead, he's built an offense so shockingly versatile that he will lead with anything, whatever will keep the defense off balance. It's Niners football, but Niners football 2.0, and though it's not always pretty like Walsh's original, it's total genius just the same.

With these questions resolved, the bar of expectations is officially raised. In delirium like this, it's easy to lapse into satisfaction. This miracle was so unexpected, now we're betting the house's money. So no big deal if we don't win it all; we're ahead of schedule, we'll get ‘em next year.

Now that thinking just won't do.

Suddenly, we've got everything we need. And though the future still looks bright, we cannot count on having it next year, or the year after, or the year after that. We've got it now, right now. And we cannot stop. We cannot settle. It's time for us to get very serious.

The entirety of our focus must be on one goal. The only goal that's worthy now.

The Niners now must win it all.