By Matthew Barrows, McClatchy Newspapers
SEATTLE — Alex Smith, criticized all season for being a game manager instead of a game winner, shot back Saturday.
With his 49ers reeling and the Seattle crowd roiling in the fourth quarter, the normally cautious quarterback reared back on second and 18 and heaved a 41-yard pass to Michael Crabtree, setting up a 39-yard David Akers field goal that gave San Francisco the lead.
Linebacker Larry Grant then forced a fumble that secured the 49ers’ 19-17 victory.
The 49ers (12-3) maintained their tiebreaker edge over New Orleans (11-3) for the NFC’s No. 2 playoff seed, which comes with a first-round bye. The Saints host Atlanta on Monday.
The loss by Seattle (7-8), coupled with a setback by Arizona (7-8), means the 49ers will be the lone postseason representative from the NFC West.
Coach Jim Harbaugh had a glow in his eye and the postseason on his mind after the game, which was particularly hard-fought and sent a number of 49ers to the X-ray room.
“It was a playoff type of atmosphere and a playoff type of game,” Harbaugh said. “It was a great preview for our team about what the playoffs are going to be like. … It really makes you feel like a man when you can do that.”
In the run-up to Saturday’s game, Harbaugh said Smith deserved a spot in the Pro Bowl because of the way he has led the 49ers, who have 12 wins for the first time since 2001.
Smith’s strength this season has been his care with the football. Despite starting every game, he has lost only two fumbles and thrown just five interceptions, and he had no turnovers Saturday.
Against the Seahawks, he added improvisational skills to his repertoire. In the third quarter, he hit tight end Vernon Davis for 16 yards on a critical fourth-and-two situation and ran 12 yards on third and eight. Smith completed 14 of 26 passes for 179 yards.
“Alex was sensational today,” Harbaugh said. “Thought he played a heck of a game. The offensive line was good as well.”
Harbaugh wasn’t bad when it came to ad libbing, either.
Before the fourth-down pass to Davis, the coach called timeout and then vociferously urged his offensive line to block hard in the running game on the next play. In fact, Harbaugh had called a play-action pass, and he admitted to a bit of “gamesmanship” in trying to sell the run to the Seahawks’ defenders and coaches.
Said Smith of his coach’s antics: “Nothing surprises any of us anymore with him. He’s got a lot of tricks up his sleeve.”
After trailing 10-3 at halftime, the 49ers methodically began to take control in the third quarter. Frank Gore scored on a four-yard run, and Akers – who now holds the NFL record for field goals in a season (42) – kicked two to give the 49ers a 16-10 lead early in the fourth quarter.
But the 49ers’ special teams, which had been excellent all afternoon, lapsed with 6:58 remaining. Linebacker Heath Farwell slipped through the line to block Andy Lee’s punt, and Seattle took over on the San Francisco 4-yard line.
On the next play, Marshawn Lynch scored the first rushing touchdown against the 49ers this season, and the Seahawks not only had the lead but the momentum.
From there, Smith orchestrated a six-play, 50-yard drive, which included the 41-yard strike down the sideline to Crabtree.
Smith said the Seahawks had been playing aggressive bump-and-run coverage throughout the afternoon and that he, Crabtree and Harbaugh had talked about making them pay with a deep pass.
“We knew at some point that we were going to have to go after them,” Smith said. “That was the shot I wanted.”