CINCINNATI -- Quarterback Alex Smith discovered a refreshing change about the 49ers on Sunday. It came before they embarked on a go-ahead touchdown drive in a 13-8 comeback win over the Cincinnati Bengals.
"Guys were frustrated and fired up. They wanted the ball back after (Frank Gore's) lost fumble," Smith said. "That was different. I've been on teams where it's, 'Here we go again.' This is a lot different."
So was the result: a rare win in the Eastern time zone, only their fourth in the past 23 trips.
Sealing coach Jim Harbaugh's victorious road debut was a 53-yard field goal by David Akers and late interceptions from Carlos Rogers and Reggie Smith.
Defeat, however, seemed imminent for the 49ers (2-1) once the Bengals (1-2) converted Gore's fumble deep in 49ers territory into a 23-yard field goal and a 6-3 lead.
Then came the 49ers' go-ahead drive: a 10-play, 72-yard march that didn't include one sack or 49ers penalty, which were trademarks of their earlier woes.
Rookie Kendall Hunter put the 49ers ahead 10-6 on a 7-yard touchdown run with 3:59 remaining, following a cavalry of blockers through a crease with his youthful burst. Setting up that score was a perfectly timed play-action pass from Smith to Vernon Davis, resulting in a 20-yard completion to the Bengals' 7.
"It's something that we have been working on for about three weeks, and we thought this was the game to use that play," Harbaugh said.
Davis added: "It's supposed to work out like that. ... You've just got to wait for the right time to get it done. The tight end has to come down and sell the run block, have patience, wait until everybody clears out in front of me and release."
Smith faked a handoff to the right before finding Davis open on the back side of the play.
"They were being overly aggressive down there. It was a great play call," added Smith, who was 4 of 5 for 48 yards on the drive.
Davis, a week after questioning his lack of action as a receiver in an overtime loss to the Cowboys, finished with a season-high eight catches for 114 yards. He had three catches for 36 yards on the go-ahead series, saving his best for last.
"We shut them down in the running game and the passing game, but they kind of tricked us on that last tight-end delay," Bengals defensive tackle Domata Peko said.
That about wraps it up for the 49ers' offensive highlights. It was an ugly affair before that touchdown drive: five sacks, four false starts by the offensive line and several dropped passes.
The 49ers defense was far from ugly. Sure, the clutch interceptions protected a flimsy lead. But the 49ers also twice forced the Bengals to settle for short field goals after first-and-goal scenarios, and Cincinnati converted only 1 of 10 third-down situations.
Rogers' interception came on the Bengals' series after Hunter's touchdown, and it led to Akers' 53-yard field goal. It was a risky call considering a miss would have given the Bengals nice field position in the face of a 10-6 deficit.
"You are weighing the perils and merits of doing each thing," Harbaugh said. "I felt confident that our field-goal unit could make the (kick). ... I have confidence in our defense, and David makes you look good."
"When you're on the road, you've got to take chances," said Akers, who also made a 23-yard attempt that tied the score at 3 in the third quarter. "I don't want to let them down when they have that faith in me."
The Bengals still had two minutes to mount another comeback, but rookie quarterback Andy Dalton had an overthrown pass intercepted by diving safety Reggie Smith at the 49ers' 14-yard line with 1:45 remaining. He got up and returned it to the 25.
"I knew I had it," said Smith, who filled in with Madieu Williams after starter Donte Whitner left with a hip injury after the game's opening series.
Although Smith's interception was reviewed by replay officials, a potential touchdown catch by Michael Crabtree was not. Officials ruled on the field that Crabtree stepped out of bounds at the back of the end zone before making a leaping grab of a third-quarter pass for an apparent touchdown.
Harbaugh did not challenge the play, partly because of the lack of an available replay at the time.
Punter Andy Lee also ran out of the back of that same end zone, doing so on purpose for a safety with two seconds remaining to diminish the Bengals' comeback chances. Lee's ensuing free kick was returned a harmless 4 yards by ex-49er Nate Clements before he fumbled and Delanie Walker recovered as time expired.
"To become the type of team that wins on the road, you need to have poise," Alex Smith said. "The defense kept us in it all day, and special teams played well. Offensively we have to play better.
"To come back and have that fourth-quarter drive says a lot."
For more on the 49ers, see Cam Inman's Hot Read blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/49ers.