SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — Alex Smith had just engineered the most offense in San Francisco 49ers history and the best balanced approach the NFL had ever witnessed when the attention started to shift to this week's NFC championship game rematch against the New York Giants.
"There's a lot of baggage, a lot of history there," Smith said. "A little unfinished business, I guess."
When the Giants (3-2) return to Candlestick Park on Sunday, they might not recognize the 49ers offense. As even San Francisco (4-1) coach Jim Harbaugh admitted: "The talent level has been upgraded."
The fact that the only question about the 49ers offense this week is Smith's sprained middle finger — which Harbaugh called "very much a concern" but Smith said wasn't an issue — illustrates just how much has changed since the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants outlasted San Francisco 20-17 in overtime Jan. 22.
Harbaugh heralded his quarterback Monday, a day after his usually defensive-oriented 49ers whipped the Buffalo Bills 45-3 by gaining a franchise-record 621 yards. San Francisco also became the first team in NFL history with 300 yards passing and 300 yards rushing in the same game.
Harbaugh said Smith "just is a better player" than the former quarterback ever was, even when Harbaugh became the 1995 NFL Comeback Player of the Year in Indianapolis, and has been instrumental in the 49ers' evolution.
"I can't tell you how much respect I have for him," Harbaugh said. "He plays so well, handles himself. He does all the things. I look back and say, 'I wish I could have done as good a job as he's done on and off the field.'"
Since last year's devastating home loss in the NFC title game, 49ers fans could only imagine the possibilities if Smith and the offense ever matched the defense's dominance.
Imagine no more.
In the grand scheme of a 16-game season, all the yards and all the records still only add up to one win against a Buffalo team that has been embarrassed in back-to-back weeks. Even so, it's hard to overlook what San Francisco might be capable of if Smith and his receivers can play like this.
Back in January, Michael Crabtree's one catch for 3 yards accounted for all of San Francisco's production from its wide receivers. The rest came from tight ends and running back Frank Gore, and even all those only amounted to a dozen for 196 yards.
In the victory against Buffalo, Crabtree had seven catches for 113 yards and a touchdown, tight end Vernon Davis had seven catches for 106 yards and newcomers Mario Manningham and Randy Moss — who again played sparingly and was only targeted twice — stretched the field enough to open lanes for Smith's passes.
"He was just on fire and on the money," said 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman, whom Harbaugh called the "shining light" in San Francisco's schemes, which also include an ever-expanding role for wildcat quarterback Colin Kaepernick and a version of the Pistol offense Kaepernick ran at Nevada.