Vernon Davis caught the ball on the run, and that was different in itself. Opposing teams have been focusing on Davis as much as Frank Gore recently, and up to that point the New York Giants had made it a habit to tackle Davis at nearly the exact moment he caught the ball, before Davis’ feet could even hit the ground. But nobody was near Davis when he caught this pass from Alex Smith, and as he raced toward the end zone, past the 20, the 10, the 5 … he pounded one last step and propelled himself into the air.

There was no doubt that when Davis landed he would score the go-ahead touchdown. That was the point where the San Francisco 49ers passed the Giants on the scoreboard; the Kendall Hunter touchdown run a couple minutes later marked the point when the 49ers officially looked up to no NFL team besides the defending champions.

The difference between the 49ers and the Giants isn’t much, but the Niners outplayed the Giants from the moment Donte Whitner forced Victor Cruz to fumble and the officials wiped it away. It wasn’t a dominating performance by any means, but whenever the 49ers had to make a stop, a field goal or a first down through the air, they succeeded nearly every time.

Even after Mario Manningham pushed Chris Culliver away and caught that touchdown to put the Giants ahead by 1 in the third quarter, it seemed like Alex Smith would figure out a way to get the lead back. My, how things have changed.

Alex’s arrival

Some wondered before the season whether Jim Harbaugh’s decision to keep Smith around was born out of ego. That seems doubtful, but it that did happen to be the case … long live Harbaugh’s ego!

Smith wasn’t perfect on Sunday. But in a ridiculously important game — even though there’s still a ton of season left — against a defense that was selling out against Gore and daring Smith to beat them, he was perfect. Smith’s only interception was on a perfect pass to Ted Ginn, and Smith once again showed the ability to run or take a sack when either decision made sense. It’s like Smith’s the opposite of Michael Vick, whose ego causes him to take getting sacked as an attack on his masculinity.

Smith passed on nine of the 49ers’ first eleven offensive plays, leading to their first field goal of four David Akers kicked in the half. Smith proved to be every bit Eli Manning’s equal on Sunday. Smith wasn’t asked to do quite as much as Manning in terms of degree of difficulty, but after two interceptions thrown to Carlos Rogers one has to wonder if Manning’s ego may have been a detriment to the Giants’ chances. It seemed to affect Manning’s facial expressions, anyway.

The 49ers’ biggest advantage

Akers was incredible today, with a beautiful onside kick, perfect kickoffs (the Giants paid for it the one of the two times they took a kick out of the end zone, with Colin Jones tackling Da’Rel Scott at the 11) and field goal perfection including another from longer than 50 yards. Andy Lee was his usual self, which in 2011 means the best punter alive. The special teams was a big reason why the Giants started none of their drives past their own 22.

They didn’t break

Justin Smith had the pass deflection at the end to cement the win, but that play was a success also in part to the actions of the new favorite for 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Patrick Willis. Willis wrapped up Jake Ballard, and along with a little coverage help ensured that even if Smith didn’t knock Manning’s 4th-down pass to the ground, it still wouldn’t have led to anything positive for New York.

Willis was the only one able to sack Manning, although Aldon Smith came close and got a pretty good shot on him late in the game. Willis was everywhere. NaVorro Bowman was as well, and they both make each other’s jobs easier. Still, it’s hard to imagine anyone scarier on the Niners’ defense than Willis when he’s simultaneously wrapping you up and throwing one of his huge arms at whichever unfortunate arm that happens to be holding the ball.

No. 2 in the NFC? Yes. No. 2 in the NFL? 

The Giants deserve credit today, because they played without their best running back (neither did the 49ers for most of this game either, a story we’ll have to pay attention to) and didn’t look like they had any sort of hangover from their win last week in New England. They tested the Niners’ pass defense repeatedly and succeeded more than a few times, and even though the supposedly smash-mouth 49ers scored 27 points the Giants’ defense was pretty impressive. The Giants did out-gain the 49ers by 90 yards and 5 first downs, and held the ball almost 10 minutes longer.

The Giants are still clearly in the NFC conversation, along with the Packers, Niners, Bears, Saints and Falcons (the Cowboys are probably in there, too; the Lions might be out). The Packers are still the Alpha team, but the 49ers look up to no one in the conference or the league when it comes to winning close games, keeping teams out of the end zone, injuring opposing running backs (where was Brandon Jacobs at the end of the game, anyway?) or grabbing 14-point leads and holding on for dear life.

The 49ers won a game against what looks like a top-5 team in the league without Gore. That alone is incredible, yet today it seemed so logical. A lot of people said this game would rest on the arm of Alex Smith; I thought that was incorrect because the Giants can’t stop the run. The Giants stopped the run, Smith won the game with his arm and now the NFL landscape looks like something Hunter S. Thompson dreamt up.

Anything’s possible now. Like Vernon trying to leap over a guy he probably outweighs by 30 pounds and making it work. It doesn’t matter how crazy it sounds, the numbers make it so: the San Francisco 49ers are a championship contender. Not coincidentally, the 49ers crowd is back. Let’s pretend the Dallas game never happened, shall we?