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49ers run reverse in game plan against Giants, rely on Smith's arm

SAN FRANCISCO -- Candlestick Park is a relic from the past, the most decrepit stadium in the league.

But on Sunday afternoon the 'Stick felt like the past -- a legendary past in which the New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers battled regularly for NFL supremacy.

Possession for possession, the 49ers and Giants matched each other in a game with both playoff implications and a playoff feel.

And when defensive end Justin Smith raised his large paws in the air to deflect the last of Eli Manning's desperate passes, the crowd of more than 69,000 let loose a roar that might have finally scared off the ghosts and signaled a living new era for the 49ers.

For the first time in almost a decade, the 49ers are relevant, creating a new age of success. They are 8-1, a phrase that the players delighted in saying after their 27-20 victory over the Giants, mouthing the exotic numbers as though they were tasting a foreign delicacy.

"We're now eight and one. Eight and one," said tight end Vernon Davis, whose leaping touchdown early in the fourth quarter put the 49ers ahead for good. "I've never been eight and one in my life."

Never in the history of football has it been so easy to isolate the variable in the winning equation, to pinpoint exactly what the difference is between ineptitude and success. Last January Jim Harbaugh left Stanford and came to the 49ers. And in the past few months -- without even the benefit of an offseason program -- Harbaugh has transformed the 49ers from league laughing-stock to league power.

"They're a good team, they're a sound team," said Giants coach Tom Coughlin.

The majority of the 49ers players are the same ones who went 6-10 last year. They floundered and faltered, couldn't win on the road or in the clutch. The last time they faced the Giants -- in New York in 2008 -- the dismal performance led to Mike Nolan's midseason firing. The result of that change was two more losing seasons under Mike Singletary.

But it turns out the players weren't the problem. They needed a coach who knew what he was doing, who put them in position to win. On Sunday they faced down the NFC East-leading Giants, a team so full of swagger after beating the Patriots in Foxboro that the players carried Coughlin off the field as though they had just clinched something.

The Giants came out slashing through the 49ers' top-ranked defense, until they got into the red zone. And then they had to settle for a field goal, not once but twice. After two long, time-eating drives the Giants only had six points.

The 49ers held a 9-6 lead at halftime. Though they also had been kept from the end zone, they fooled the Giants with their overall game plan. They came out passing.

"They came out and ran the ball six times in the first half, which was a surprise," Coughlin said.

The Giants had tipped their hand to their expectations with their chatter during the week. Coughlin praised Alex Smith by saying he's done a good job of managing the games. Justin Tuck said all the 49ers ask of Smith is not to lose the game. It was clear the Giants expected that if they stopped Frank Gore -- who didn't play in the second half due to an ankle injury -- they could stop the 49ers offense.

Instead the 49ers asked Smith to win the game. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown. His one interception came when Ted Ginn couldn't catch a ball that bounced off his facemask.

"He executed the plan and he didn't blink," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "Alex is a cool customer."

That's not something you would have heard said about Smith even a few weeks ago.

There's growing puzzlement over how Smith could morph from first-round bust to a playoff quarterback in just two months. The backhanded compliments keep coming. "You'll find a way to keep diminishing the guy," Harbaugh said. "They call him a game manager, but they're trying to slight him when they say that."

Harbaugh has his back, but Smith shrugs off being undervalued. When the same people who booed you off your home field 11 months ago are now screaming your name in adulation, it's easy to have perspective.

"It feels good to be 8-1," Smith said. "I managed myself into 8-1."

He smiled when he said it.

"He's a strong man," Davis said. "I've been here when Alex was getting yelled at and everyone was talking bad about him. He keeps his head up and keeps on moving. I give my heart to Alex. He's a strong guy."

Smith has the right idea. The 49ers don't have to dwell on the miserable past decade of losing because it's over. And they don't have to be afraid of the five Lombardi trophies in their lobby or of the ghosts that have filled Candlestick for so many years.

They're crafting their own legacy, faster and more dramatically than anyone could have imagined.

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