49ers quarterback Alex Smith was sacked five times but led a long, go-ahead drive in the fourth quarter. (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
The game wasn’t pretty, obviously.
It might have been worth blacking out in both cities.
Perhaps the fans in Cincinnati knew what was coming and decided they didn’t need to pay good money to see this one -- the crowd for Sunday’s 49ers-Bengals game in Cincinnati turned out to be the smallest for a home opener in 30 years.
The 49ers committed 12 penalties, including several for false starts that killed promising drives. They rushed for only 50 yards, an average of 1.7 per carry. Quarterback Alex Smith again was under pressure, sacked five times. And the San Francisco offense didn’t cross midfield until midway through the third quarter.
But when the game ended, the 49ers were 13-8 winners and are now 2-1 this season. And, if not for a late collapse against the Dallas Cowboys in an overtime loss last week, could be 3-0 under first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.
On Sunday against the Bengals, the Niners did what they needed to do. As Smith said earlier this week, “Whatever it takes to win.”
Sunday, Harbaugh’s team did just that.
In three games now, the 49ers have stayed in position to win through a combination of playing solid defense against the run and playing conservatively on offense, with Smith avoiding mistakes.
San Francisco’s secondary, which had been torched by Dallas last week, picked off rookie Andy Dalton twice late in the game to secure the win, while allowing Dalton to throw for just 157 yards. Cincinnati’s run game also was shut down, and the Bengals could muster just 228 total yards of offense.
Smith, meanwhile, led his team on a 10-play, 72-yard drive in the fourth quarter after the Bengals had taken a 6-3 lead. Three times on the drive, Smith connected with tight end Vernon Davis, including a 20-yarder that gave San Francisco a first-and-goal at the 7. From there, Kendall Hunter powered his way into the end zone with 3:59 left, and David Akers followed with the PAT to put the 49ers up 10-6.
Carlos Rogers then intercepted Dalton, which set up Akers’ 53-yard field goal with just 2:16 remaining.
With two seconds left San Francisco gave up two points on a safety when punter Andy Lee purposely ran out of the end zone. When Cincinnati fumbled away the ensuing punt, San Francisco had its victory.
Smith again was solid. He completed 20-of-30 throws for 201 yards and no interceptions, and has so far thrown just one pick in 2011 and lost no fumbles, despite leaky protection.
Since 2003, the 49ers had been 3-19 in the Eastern time zone going into Sunday’s game. Now they’re 1-0 under Harbaugh, and the team will stay in Ohio this week to get ready for another Eastern game, a matchup with the Eagles in Philadelphia.
As 49ers president Jed York told the San Jose Mercury News this week leading up the game with the Bengals: “I think we’ve gotten better.”
“But we aren’t to where we need to be,” he added. “The only way to do that is day by day. It’s a slow process.”