With Sunday’s loss by the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers have moved into sole possession of first place in the NFC West.
Now, the Niners (5-2) can focus on their upcoming Monday night matchup with the Cards (4-3) and hope that a few extra days off have allowed running back Frank Gore to heal up from the battering he took in rushing for more than 130 yards in a win over Seattle Thursday night, and that quarterback Alex Smith’s sprained middle finger on his throwing hand has gotten better, too.
Though Smith has said repeatedly that the finger injury – suffered late in the win over Buffalo on Oct. 7 -- has not bothered him, some are wondering if that’s the case.
The San Francisco Chronicle’s Eric Branch points out that since Smith injured the finger, he has thrown four interceptions and had passer ratings of 43.1 (in a loss to the Giants) and 74.5 (in Thursday’s win over Seattle).
As Branch notes, Smith was intercepted just four times over his previous 15 games and 440 attempts. And, Smith went into the game against the Giants on Oct. 14 as the NFL’s highest-rated passer.
After throwing three interceptions against the Giants, the 49ers’ game plan against the Seahawks was much more conservative, and some wondered if the Niners had lost confidence in Smith.
After Thursday night’s victory over Seattle, Niners offensive coordinator Greg Roman told Yahoo’s Michael Silver: “Alex is still working his way back into form, so we have to manufacture things in the meantime.”
Then, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh also said Smith’s finger may be troubling him.
“I can’t say for sure,” Harbaugh told Branch. “He’s not the kind of guy that would ever say it and none of us are, that would publicly make any excuse or rationalization. I know him. And I would disgrace him by saying it was (a factor), publicly. I know the kind of guy he is and the kind of competitior he is. It’s good. It’s getting better.”
And, if indeed it has been bothering Smith, it should be much better in a week, when the 49ers are in Arizona.
The other factor, however, is the Giants and Seahawks represent two of the more rugged defenses in the NFL, and Smith could just be in a slump.
Two of Smith’s interceptions vs. the Giants appeared to come on badly read plays, not poor throws, necessarily.
Then on Thursday, Seahawks’ big, physical cornerbacks took away much of the 49ers’ downfield passing game.
Harbaugh this weekend, in fact, questioned the Seahawks’ tactics, which involved a lot of contact with wide receivers downfield – an NFL no-no. Harbaugh said he planned to contact the NFL office to get clarification on coverage rules.
“Yeah, I think that’s just an important thing to address,” Harbaugh told the Chronicle. “I mean, what is this all being defined as? Is it physical play? Is it within the rules?”
Whether or not Smith’s finger has been a factor or non-factor in his two-game tailspin, one thing is certain: after all the buildup before the rematch with the Giants, and then the quick turnaround to play the Seahawks, Smith and his teammates likely will be able to regroup and focus this week with some extra time to get ready for the Cardinals. And that can’t be a bad thing.