Unexpected? For sure. Fluky? Not in how it played out. Personal? You bet.
Fatal for the 49ers? Not likely, for few teams have the talent, coaching and championship mettle to replicate this Candlestick Park crushing. But San Francisco’s most lopsided home defeat since Mike Singletary lost his cool against the Atlanta Falcons in 2009 wasn’t something to shrug off, either. This was a big game, and the 49ers didn't measure up.
"We just have to be mature about the situation, mature about what happened and stay together like we always do," Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis said afterward.
There was nothing particularly mature about the adjectives 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh hurled at Kevin Gilbride in a team statement Friday. Gilbride, the Giants' offensive coordinator, had suggested rather indelicately that 49ers defensive lineman Justin Smith “gets away with murder” by holding opponents to enable pass-rushing teammates.
Gilbride was out of line. Harbaugh responded with both barrels.
"Kevin Gilbride's outrageous, irrational statement regarding Justin Smith’s play is, first, an absurd analogy," the statement had read. "Second, it is an incendiary comment targeting one of the truly exemplary players in this league. It's obvious that the Giants coaching staff’s sole purpose is to use their high visibility to both criticize and influence officiating."
For all the scheming that makes football interesting, the game remains about emotion and motivation, too. A Super Bowl champ needs no validation, but the Giants wanted some Sunday. They bristled at suggestions the wrong team had won their NFC Championship Game at Candlestick in January, when the Giants left San Francisco with an overtime victory despite the six sacks Eli Manning took.
“We look at it as if they had something we should have had,” 49ers receiver Kyle Williams had said last week.
The statement from Harbaugh surely got the Giants' attention, too. It was the latest and most extreme example of Harbaugh standing up for one of his players. It was also the sort of thing that sounds a lot better coming off 34-0 and 45-3 victories, as the case was last week, than it sounds following a humbling 23-point defeat at home.
For two seasons, Harbaugh could say what he wanted without consequence because the 49ers' coaches and players usually had the answers on the field. They didn't have the answers Sunday.
The Giants coaxed three interceptions from 49ers quarterback Alex Smith through a plan that appeared to rely more heavily on man coverage, making it tougher for Smith to find his first reads. They also solved the pass-rush twists that had worked so well for San Francisco against the Giants last season.
Those two adjustments underwrote the kind of focused effort championship teams can muster on call. The reigning Super Bowl champion Giants are that kind of team. The 49ers have the potential to become one, but they didn’t know what they were getting into Sunday. None of us did.
“I don’t know that I have a lesson learned right at this moment,” Harbaugh said. “I’ll think through it and see if we can’t get it corrected. The Giants played a heckuva ballgame.”
That was no accident.
"One thing that really kind of ticked us off, we felt like they felt we didn't deserve what we got last year," said Giants center David Baas, a former 49er.
What made the Giants think the 49ers thought that way?
"It's all about attitude and how you present yourself," Baas said.
And what does "how you present yourself" mean? The comments from Williams? The statement from Harbaugh?
"You can take it any way you want to," Baas said. "Words, actions, doesn't matter. People use certain things for motivation. I"m not going to elaborate too much on that, but we were very motivated coming into this game."
Motivation can be overrated if channeled improperly.
Baas and the Giants' offensive line focused hard on solving the pass-rush twists Justin Smith and Aldon Smith used so effectively in knocking around Manning during the NFC title game. The six sacks were only part of the story. San Francisco also recorded a dozen quarterback hits. Manning survived as much as he won, with the Giants needing Williams' muffed punt return in overtime to escape victoriously.
"During the week, you look back at the NFC Championship Game and you look at what they are doing today and you try to figure out similarities in terms of how they twist or how they will do certain things that didn't work for us last time," Baas said. "I feel like recognition, especially passing off twists -- that study really helped us. We knew what was coming and even if they changed it up, we were very quick to respond to it. Doing that established a little bit, too, saying, 'Look, you've got to come up with a new plan.'"
Manning took zero sacks Sunday. The 49ers' Ahmad Brooks accounted for the lone official hit on Manning (the stat can be a bit subjective, but you get the point).
So much else was different this time, too.
The 49ers have generally been the team to let its play do the talking. Harbaugh's statement spoke loudest this time.
The 49ers are usually the team forcing turnovers while limiting their own. They were minus-three on turnovers this time.
Before Harbaugh arrived, the 49ers relied on team executives to help manage replay challenges. The new staff was more than capable of handling that aspect of the game, it seemed, but not this time. The non-fumble Harbaugh challenged looked like a non-fumble from every angle.
The 49ers went most of last season without allowing a rushing touchdown or a 100-yard rusher. They watched Ahmad Bradshaw carry 27 times for 116 yards and a score Sunday.
The 49ers under Harbaugh have generally dominated on special teams, swinging field position to their advantage -- a huge benefit for the defense.
David Akers missed two field goal tries Sunday. The 49ers' increasingly leaky coverage units opened the second half by allowing David Wilson's 66-yard kickoff return, setting up a touchdown for a 17-3 New York lead. The Giants' first three possessions of the second half began at the San Francisco 32-, 12- and 5-yard lines.
Frank Gore, effective early in the game, never carried the ball in the second half.
That's how far the 49ers wandered off script in this game.
What now? The 49ers are 4-2 and can reclaim sole possession of first place in the NFC West by beating the 4-2 Seattle Seahawks here Thursday night.
There's no need to panic, of course, but the 49ers will be best served making their next statement on the field, not via emailed news release.