SAN FRANCISCO -- Defensive end Justin Smith has turned into the 49ers' closer.Smith batted down Eli Manning's fourth-down pass from the 49ers 10-yard line with 34 seconds remaining Sunday to preserve a 27-20 victory over the New York Giants at Candlestick Park.And 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh made a case for Smith as a candidate for NFL Most Valuable Player.
"He's a great player," Harbaugh said of Smith, who has earned back-to-back trips to the Pro Bowl. "He's having a great year. He should be in the MVP category, conversation. He's having that kind of a year for us."He's got a huge heart. That guy is just a big, strong, mighty man and we had a lot of them today."Smith and teammate Patrick Willis are legitimate candidates for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, as the 49ers have forged an 8-1 record with seven games remaining.Smith has 4.5 sacks to go along with his two game-clinching plays this season. In Week 4, he wrapped up a 24-23 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles when he chased down speedy wide receiver Jeremy Maclin and forced a fumble that ended the Eagles' final threat.On Sunday, Smith rushed against Giants left guard David Diehl on the final play after playing every defensive snap in the game. He knocked down Manning's fourth-down pass with his right arm."No. 1, I was tired," Smith said. "No. 2, they (the coaches) were telling us to get our hands up. They were throwing pretty quick on rhythm. I just put my hand there. Luckily, it was where the ball went. It was just blind luck."Said Willis, "Justin's a consummate team player. I told him on the sidelines, series after series, how much I respect him. I think he'll be one of the best players I'll have ever played with in my life and it's been a pleasure playing with him."Week-in and week-out he comes to play. He practices hard in practice and goes hard on Sundays. He's a tremendous player."Willis isn't too shabby, either.Smith finished with six tackles in the game. NaVorro Bowman led the 49ers with 14 tackles, but Willis has also placed himself into the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Willis recorded 11 tackles, a sack and two tackles for losses.The 49ers hold a five-game lead in the NFC West. The victory over the Giants might have been their most impressive all-around performance of the season."They're a heck of a team," Justin Smith said. "We were talking about them with our coaches. The schemes they run and the way they attack had me guessing out there. Hats off to them. Keeping an offense of that quality out of the end zone bodes well for us."The 49ers own a two-game lead for the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs. The top two seed earn a first-round bye in the playoffs. But this victory also sent a message, Willis said."It's a big statement across the board, however you look at it," he said. "There was a bunch of people that doubted us this week, have been doubting us the whole season and will still doubt us.
"They have so many excuses as to why the Giants didn't win this game, whether it'll be, 'Eli wasn't having his day,' or whether it was the receiver wasn't this or the line wasn't this.' They're going to have something to say to try and take away from us winning this game, but at the end of the day we let them say what they want to say. We let the record speak for itself. For us, we're humble but we're still hungry."