Sports

Latest win shows the 49ers' growth

SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh, the man of no comparisons, is suddenly generating buzz that his spot-on, creative coaching resembles that of the late Hall of Famer, Bill Walsh — and that his 49ers are performing much like those great San Francisco teams of old.

Alex Smith, the oft-maligned former first-round pick, is now the Bay Area’s quarterback of the hour — after another Harbaugh-groomed QB, Stanford’s Andrew Luck, faltered on The Farm against Oregon.

Ricky Jean Francois, the outspoken defensive tackle, has no qualms acknowledging the 49ers finally silenced any remaining doubters after Sunday’s thrilling 27-20 victory against the New York Giants, a fellow NFC division leader.

“It might change the perspective of everybody now, that we’re not just a team that’s a joke,” Francois said Monday. “We’re a team to actually take serious. Last night I was watching NFL Network and I heard Deion Sanders say he wasn’t giving us our props and we weren’t a team to take serious. But now that we won the game, everybody’s taking us serious. Everybody was probably looking at us like, ‘They’re not that good, they have certain things they need still to work on.’ Don’t get me wrong, we’re not perfect. We’re still working on a lot of things — offense, defense special teams — because we’ve got to make sure every game we win with all three phases. To us, it doesn’t matter if the league takes us serious.”

Six straight wins and the second-best record in the NFL hadn’t quite done the trick for some skeptics, who still questioned whether the 49ers truly were among the league’s top teams.

Harbaugh’s resurgent group is 8-1 for the franchise’s best start in 14 years and needs only one more victory — NFC West rival Arizona comes to town Sunday — for its first winning record since 2002. Clinching the first playoff berth since ’02 also could happen soon if San Francisco keeps winning.

Harbaugh made his message clear a month ago after a win at previously unbeaten Detroit: “If the 49ers’ success offends you, so be it.”

Whether the win over the Giants will change the outside world’s perception of the 49ers, they don’t really care.

“It depends on who you ask. Do I think we made a statement?” linebacker Parys Haralson said. “I think we went out and we won a game that shows we’re a football team to be reckoned with.”

Smith led his fourth comeback in the fourth quarter this season — and did so without relying on star running back Frank Gore, who was limited because of a right knee injury.

Smith, San Francisco’s No. 1 overall pick in the 2005 draft out of Utah, has come into his own at last under Harbaugh. He completed 19 of 30 passes for 242 yards and a touchdown Sunday, throwing one interception with two sacks.

For all those years of boos from the home crowd at Candlestick Park, Smith shined in the passing game against the Giants as San Francisco worked to run a more balanced attack.

“Alex Smith, you find a way to keep diminishing the guy,” Harbaugh said Sunday night. “They call him a game manager and he’s a great game manager, but you read it and you hear people talk about him and they’re trying to slight him when they say that. He, once again, goes out and plays great football and keeps proving it. That’s what the guy’s about and I have a ton of respect for him as a player. You can write whatever you want. The more against us the better.”

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