The worst loss in the Jim Harbaugh Era falls directly at the feet of the San Francisco 49ers second-year head coach.
A simple, conservative, pound-the-rock offense that has made the 49ers one of the NFL’s top teams since Harbaugh became coach, took the day off and quarterback Alex Smith paid a heavy price against a relentless New York Giants defense in Sunday’s 26-3 loss at Candlestick Park.
The San Francisco Chronicle promoted the game with the headline that it was “shaping up to be a classic.”
Well, a classic fail for Harbaugh and his Niners.
The 49ers (4-2) went away from what they do best, tried to get cute with backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick at odd occasions, abandoned workhorse running back Frank Gore and Pro Bowl tight end Vernon Davis, and allowed the Giants defense to dictate the game with three interceptions and six sacks.
Smith, under pressure and forced to play catch-up amid an awkward shuttle-system with Kaepernick, had a 43.1 quarterback rating and his first three-pick game since 2009.
Ever-reliable kicker David Akers missed two field goals.
The 49ers were coming off consecutive dominating offensive performances where they outscored the Jets and Bills 79-3, and, against Buffalo, gained more than 600 yards and became the first team in NFL history with 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the same game. Against the Giants, they had just 314 yards, 80 on the ground and just 14 first downs.
The San Francisco run defense that had allowed one 100-yard rusher in the past 43 games, gave up nearly 150 to the Giants and 116 and a touchdown to Ahmad Bradshaw in a Gore-like 27-carry performance.
Eli Manning added 15 completions in 28 throws for 193 yards and a touchdown on a 6-yard pass to Victor Cruz for a 7-3 second quarter lead the defending Super Bowl champion Giants (4-2) would not relinquish.
Gore had just eight carries and gained 36 yards. Davis had just three catches for 37 yards in five targets.
Following two strong drives to open the game, it started to go down hill for Smith, who completed 19 of 30 passes for 200 yards.
Prince Amukamara’s interception on the first play of the second quarter led to the Cruz touchdown. Antrel Rolle’s two picks on consecutive third quarter possessions led to Tynes’ field goals and essentially ended the game.
The 49ers opened with back-to-back 12-play drives in a dominant first quarter but managed only a 3-0 lead. Akers was wide right from 43 on the first drive and good from 42 on the second. Smith’s offense had 24 plays and seven first downs in the first quarter. The Niners had just 39 plays and seven first downs the rest of the game.
The outcome was far from decided when the Niners kicked off to start the second half, trailing 10-3. But rookie David Wilson returned Akers’ kick 66 yards. Seven plays later, Bradshaw powered over from the 1 to make it 17-3.
The 49ers took over with Smith at quarterback on first down, Kaepernick on second down and Smith back in on third-and-1. But Leonard Davis started early as Smith was handing off to the fullback for the obvious yard to gain. Now, on third-and-6 from his 23, Smith had to pass. The Giants knew it, cluttered the secondary, and feasted on the situation. Smith’s errant throw sailed to Rolle, who caught it at the 32 and returned it to the 12. Tynes cashed in the takeaway and it was 20-3 with 9:51 left in the quarter.
If that wasn’t the series that waved the white flag from Harbaugh’s side of the field, the next one was.
Smith was sacked for a 7-yard loss on second down, took a delay of game penalty, and on third and 16, found Rolle again, leading to another Tynes field goal and a 23-3 Giants lead.
Smith opened the next series and connected with Randy Moss on a 55-yard gain to the New York 29. But Kaepernick came in on the next play and was sacked for an 11-yard loss. Smith was brought back and asked to clean up the second-and-21 mess. Facing fourth and 15 at the NY 40, Harbaugh went for it but Smith’s pass to Davis was good for only half the necessary distance and the Giants took over.
With 2:54 left in the third, this one was over.
The game was billed as a “rematch” of January’s NFC Championship Game won by the Giants, 20-17, in overtime. The 49ers mantra was “unfinished business.”
And that it still is.
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