It’s taken nine games for the San Francisco 49ers to emerge as a bonafide playoff team, and this past Sunday’s 27-20 win over the New York Giants went a long way.
First-year Head Coach Jim Harbaugh has been a miracle worker. A season ago, the Niners were 6-10, but the glory days have returned to the Bay Area.
What has transpired shouldn’t come as a complete surprise given that Harbaugh turned around an average Stanford team into a national power.
The victory wasn’t secured until Justin Smith knocked down New York quarterback Eli Manning’s pass on fourth and two at the 49ers’ 10-yard line as 35 seconds remained.
San Francisco (8-1) has a seven-game winning streak and is among a handful of NFC squads that could reach the Super Bowl.
The favorite has to be the defending champion Green Bay Packers (9-0), which defeated the Minnesota Vikings, 45-7, while the New Orleans Saints (7-3), who needed a 26-yard field goal in overtime by John Kasay to defeat the Atlanta Falcons, 26-23, aren’t far behind.
There are several strong teams in the AFC, and the best might be the Pittsburgh Steelers (7-3), 24-17 winners over the Cincinnati Bengals, as running back Rashard Mendenhall had a two-yard scoring run in the first quarter, and a nine-yarder in the third quarter.
The Houston Texans (7-3) are also on that list after routing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 37-9, as the defense had three interceptions and four sacks.
Attention must be paid to the New England Patriots (6-3), who went on the road and drilled the New York Jets 37-16, behind quarterback Tom Brady.
Brady (26 of 39 for 329 yards) had an 18-yard scoring pass to tight end Rob Gronkowski (113 yards and eight receptions) late in the second quarter and a five-yarder with 4:44 left in the third quarter.
Brady also hit Deion Branch (58 yards and five catches) with an eight-yard strike as 8:04 remained in the fourth quarter.
The Baltimore Ravens (6-3) can make a deep playoff run despite dropping a 22-17 decision to the Seattle Seahawks as Steven Hauschka tied a club record with five field goals.
Five field goals littered the opening half in San Francisco, but quarterback Alex Smith (19 of 30 for 242 yards with one interception) also had a 31-yard pass to tight end Vernon Davis early in the final quarter that made it 20-13.
New York led 3-0 when Lawrence Tynes made a 23-yard field goal with 6:27 left, and David Akers nailed a 36-yarder with 25 seconds showing.
The theme continued in the second quarter as Tynes hit a 25-yarder, while Akers had a 52-yard kick and a 39-yard boot.