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September 9, 2012
Brain & brawn: Harbaugh praises 49ers' "mind game" after Lambeau win


GREEN BAY, WIS. -- The 49ers had been diagramming plays, brainstorming ideas and otherwise scheming for the Packers as soon as the schedule came out in April.

On Sunday it showed.

Quarterback Alex Smith calmly and efficiently ran an offense that incorporated a dizzying array of personnel groups while the defense, using a "dime" formation seldom seen a year ago, pestered Aaron Rodgers and held the dangerous Green Bay offense in check. As a result, the 49ers accomplished in Week 1 what no team was able to do last regular season - hand the Packers a loss at Lambeau Field.

"The fight to 60 minutes was there, but I thought we played our best game with our minds than we've ever played," Jim Harbaugh said of his team's 30-22 victory. "I'm very proud of our guys."

At the top of his list was Smith, who went through the draft process with Rodgers in 2005 and then watched as Rodgers went onto NFL stardom while he floundered on bad and sometimes dysfunctional 49ers squads. The quarterbacks had faced off once before in 2009 with Rodgers and the Packers winning the contest, 30-24.

On Sunday, however, it was Smith who coolly handled a complex and creative offense that rolled out a different group of skill players - three receivers one snap, no receivers the next -- from one play to the next.

He threw one touchdown to tight end Vernon Davis and another to the biggest Packer killer of them all, Randy Moss. It was Moss' 16th touchdown reception against Green Bay and the 154th of his career, moving him into second place behind Jerry Rice on the NFL's all-time list.

Smith also had a big achievement. When he flipped a 15-yard pass to Bruce Miller late in the fourth quarter, he moved past Steve Young for the franchise record in consecutive pass attempts - 185 - without an interception. Smith's care of the football last season was noteworthy - he threw only five interceptions in 18 games - but it also led to the derisive description of him as a "game manager."

On Sunday, that care proved to be the difference in the game.

After a 75-yard punt return by Green Bay's Randall Cobb early in the fourth quarter cut San Francisco's lead to eight points, the Packers defense forced a three-and-out series by the 49ers. Rodgers took over with the momentum decidedly in his favor and the crowd suspecting that the winning magic they had witnesses throughout 2011 was about to return.

But on his first drop back, Rodgers was intercepted by inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. And on the play after that, Frank Gore ran around the left side of the Packers defense and then pinballed into the end zone for a 23-yard run.

Rodgers was bothered throughout the afternoon. For much of the first half, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio turned to a formation he seldom used a year ago, one that incorporated six defensive backs to counter Green Bay's pass-heavy attack.

Most of the time, that sixth defensive back, Perrish Cox, was substituting for perhaps the 49ers' best and most recognized player, linebacker Patrick Willis. "It's difficult," Fangio said of taking a four-time pro-bowl player like Willis out of the game. "But it's either that or you've got to line him up on a receiver sometimes, which he did a couple of times."

Rodgers certainly didn't have a bad game. He threw for 303 yards and finished with a 93.3 passer rating. Smith, however, was the better quarterback in going 20-26 for 211 yards and finishing with a 125.6 rating.

According to the gossip show TMZ, during the offseason Rodgers made a bet with Boyz II Men member Nathan Morris, who is a longtime 49ers fan. If Boyz II Men sang the national anthem at Sunday's game, they agreed, Rodgers would do something humiliating if the Packers lost: He'd wear an Alex Smith 49ers jersey this week.

"I did hear about the bet, (Saturday) someone told me about it," said Smith, who has become good friends with Rodgers. "I'll have to call him and get a picture."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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