Alex Smith has come full circle. There may be those Joe Montana followers in San Francisco who remain non-believers, but to his coaches and 49ers teammates, he is a winner -- the quarterback they want for the future.
And guess what? Management is going to have to pay for that right after signing him for the bargain-basement price of $4 million this season with a $1 million playoff bonus.
I don't suspect there will be a problem getting a new long-term deal done with Smith, who is an unrestricted free agent. He likes it here, and he loves working and playing for coach Jim Harbaugh. Life is extremely good again after one failing season after another, including one in which former head coach Mike Nolan questioned his toughness.
Smith is a victory over the New York Giants away from Super Bowl XLVI. Years ago, Super Bowls were showcase events for Montana -- a winner of four of them -- and this San Francisco franchise, one built in the 1980s by the late Bill Walsh.
Steve Young, another Hall of Fame quarterback, won a fifth title for then-owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr., who will be at today's NFC Championship Game against the New York Giants. It's been 17 seasons since San Francisco last played in a Super Bowl.
Despite two shoulder surgeries, being called a bust and even being booed in Candlestick Park earlier in the season, Smith has endured and progressed as a player. In a sit down with Terry Bradshaw to air on Sunday's FOX pregame show, Smith admits how tough it was coming out of Utah as the No. 1 pick in the draft in 2005. San Francisco chose him over the local boy, Aaron Rodgers, who grew up a 49ers fan and played across the bay for the California Golden Bears.
Smith played in Urban Meyer's spread formation -- yes, the same one that produced Tim Tebow -- and he also had the luxury of running the ball.
"I liked to call a run on the first or second play because once you're hit, you know the game has started," Smith said.
But this year, starting in the preseason, the first hits on Smith's shoulder pads have come from Harbaugh. Using his fists, Harbaugh pounds on Smith's shoulders and might even head slap him before sending him onto the field for the team's first offensive series.
"He definitely surprised me the first time he did it," Smith said of Harbaugh's pregame antics. "But that's the way he is. That's how he played. He was tough."
There is no doubt the Meyer way of playing college quarterback didn't prepare Smith (or Tebow for that matter) for the NFL version. He had to learn how to take a snap and also learn how to read defenses. There is so much rolling out in the Meyer system that a quarterback looks over just half the field and simply throws to the open receiver -- or if not, takes off and makes a positive play.
And with one new offensive coordinator after another, Smith struggled with NFL football. He did the best he could with what he had to work with and admittedly forced too many throws, believing he had to make spectacular plays to keep his job and win over fans and teammates.
Harbaugh changed that entire approach. Smith is more than a game manager, too. But Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman brought a confidence to the table, believing they could win with Smith, who fed off it. And like the team's more famous Smith -- Pro Bowler Justin -- proclaimed: "He's a baller, like the rest of us."
Harbaugh's Smith takes fewer chances with the football and allows the game to come to him. His stats aren't as gaudy as Drew Brees or today's counterpart, Eli Manning, but Smith has won 14 games this season and rallied his team from a 20-point second-half deficit in Week 4 in Philadelphia. That game -- in which Smith was 9 of 10 for 153 yards and two touchdowns in the final two quarters -- altered the entire season for both franchises. It sent the 49ers soaring and put the dreamy Eagles in a tailspin.
There is no question Smith is ready for today's duel with Manning, who already owns one Super Bowl ring. Eli may have more receiving weapons, but the 49ers have Frank Gore and a better kicking game and the most complete defense left in the playoffs.
"I'm ready," Smith said. "I think our team is ready, too."
Baltimore at New England, 3 P.M. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: The Patriots use their double tight-end formation almost 80 percent of the time, and that number could go up today because Baltimore's star defenders, Ray Lewis and safety Ed Reed, don't appear capable of keeping up with either Rob Gronkowski or Aaron Hernandez. Those tight ends also impact rush linebacker Terrell Suggs, who doesn't figure to be dropping into coverage much against them, either.
Two seasons ago, the Ravens smacked Tom Brady around in a wild-card win in Foxboro, racing to a 24-0 lead. And that's the only way they win today. Suggs and friends must knock Brady around and put him on the ground.
The Patriots demolished Denver and Tim Tebow last weekend, but they failed to beat a team that finished with a winning record during the regular season and their defense was one of the league's worst.
Ravens QB Joe Flacco has won a playoff game in each of his four NFL seasons, but few believe he has the firepower to compete with Brady. The Ravens must feed Ray Rice, who had 367 touches during the regular season for 2,068 total yards and 15 touchdowns. Two years ago, Rice dominated the Patriots with 159 yards, including an 83-yard touchdown. Pats linebacker Jerod Mayo must stop him.
If Flacco can get in a ball-control rhythm with Anquan Boldin, Rice and reach Lee Evans deep a few times, Baltimore can play keep-away against Brady. That strategy, though, is out the window if Brady and Patriots can strike quickly and build a lead. Baltimore has excellent cornerbacks who figure to take Wes Welker away, but Brady figures to attack the middle of the field with those two huge targets.
CZAR'S SCOOP: This season is nothing new when it comes to a lack of a big-name running back for Bill Belichick. In 12 seasons with the Patriots, his teams have had only three 1,000-yard rushers.
Belichick and Brady won their 15th playoff game together last weekend, breaking his tie with Pittsburgh's Bradshaw and head coach Chuck Noll. The all-time leader is Montana with 16 career playoff wins. The Patriots haven't won a Super Bowl since the 2004 season and lost in their last visit four years ago when the Giants ended their run at perfection.
Baltimore SS Bernard Pollard is weak in deep coverage. He's also the former Chief whose tackle caused Brady to suffer a torn ACL. Meanwhile, it could be an interesting offseason for Flacco. If he loses, do the Ravens sign him to a long-term contract for big money, or do they allow him to play out his contract and look elsewhere?
Patriots versatile Kevin Faulk, one of the game's best third-down running backs, could be playing in his last game for the Patriots. It appears rookie Nate Solder could be starting at right tackle for the Pats' Sebastian Vollmer, who has back and foot injuries. Although he was in for only one snap last weekend, WR Chad Ochocinco is expected to return from Florida after his father's funeral and be available today.
New York Giants at San Francisco, 6:30 P.M. ET
WHAT TO WATCH FOR: No one thought the 49ers could score 36 points and beat Drew Brees, but they did, and now they face the hottest team in the playoffs in the Giants, who have won four straight with a new and improved defense.
With the healthy returns of Osi Umenyiora and Justin Tuck toward the end of the season, New York has displayed a complete and relentless pass rush that has amassed 17 sacks in the four wins. The pressure has allowed New York's secondary to quit gambling and simply play within the scheme. Everything has clicked for the Giants, who have allowed only 12.5 points in the four games. During the first 14 games of the season, they were surrendering 26.6 points a game.
Alex Smith and the 49ers finished at or near the bottom of the league in such categories as total yards per game (26th) and net passing yards per game (29th). The offensive line also allowed 44 sacks, a little more than one per 10 passing plays. Even in last week's win over the Saints, the 49ers went five series in the second half with a first down. Smith's offense has converted less than 30 percent of all third-down plays during the season.
With rain forecast by game time or shortly thereafter, Frank Gore -- who failed to gain a yard in six attempts in the win over New York this season -- should become the focal point of the game. Can Chris Canty and Linval Joseph negate Gore's inside runs? Smith will need some big plays out of WR Michael Crabtree, who had too many missed opportunities last weekend.
San Francisco does have a solid defense and its back seven is very talented. If the defense stuffs the New York running game, can Eli Manning make enough big plays deep and also on crossing patterns to keep drives alive? Manning has three solid receivers, but in the past two playoff games, WR Hakeem Nicks has 13 catches for 280 yards and four scores, including plays of 66 and 37 yards against the Packers last Sunday. Manning will look to isolate Nicks and Victor Cruz against CB Tarell Brown.
Giants LB Michael Boley did a great job on TE Vernon Davis in the first game against them this season until he injured his hamstring. But with Boley on the sidelines, Davis caught a 31-yard touchdown in the second half and had two touchdown catches and 180 receiving yards last weekend against the Saints.
CZAR'S SCOOP: According to Kevin Bradley, Sportsbook manager of Bovada, 56 percent of the bettors are taking the Giants and the three points. "I can see that getting somewhere closer to 60 percent or more by game time based on how the public has bought into the Giants," Bradley said, referring to the end-of-the season action
There is no doubt the 49ers wanted the Packers to lose last Sunday because it meant having a home game today. Still, Giants safety Antrel Rolle took offense to Davis' comments. "I don't give a damn who we're playing," Rolle said on radio this past week. "That's my take. I'll take any opponent, any given day, that's my attitude . . . I don't shy away from any opponent." While playing for Arizona, Rolle did have an interception against Smith back in 2006.
This marks the Giants' 18th appearance in either an NFL or NFC championship game, the most by a team in NFL history. Plus, Giants head coach Tom Coughlin has led New York to five postseason appearances, which ties him with former coach and Hall of Fame finalist Bill Parcells for the most in franchise history. Coughlin's six career postseason road wins is one behind former Cowboys head coach Tom Landry for the most all-time.
Gore isn't totally healthy, but he did gain 89 of San Francisco's 143 rushing yards against New Orleans. He and Kendall Hunter also need to be effective in the passing game. The Giants limited the Cowboys to 49 yards rushing and then Atlanta gained only 64 yards rushing in the wild card game with Michael Turner having no big runs.
Former owner Eddie DeBartolo, Jr. will be at the game today, and if the 49ers win, he will be presenting the Halas championship trophy to his sister, Denise York, and her family.