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Harbaugh: Smith holds a candle to top QBs

First, Jim Harbaugh campaigned to bring Alex Smith back for another season in San Francisco. Now, he's pushing for his quarterback to make the Pro Bowl.

The 49ers' coach is praising his comeback QB as one of the top three in the NFC along with Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers and Drew Brees of New Orleans -- and Harbaugh said Tuesday he considers the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick to be the team's long-term answer behind center.

And everybody knows Harbaugh has plenty of pull when it comes to the roster considering he has pulled off such a remarkable resurgence for this franchise in a matter of months.

While Harbaugh isn't about to start getting into statement games or whether his Niners now have elite NFL status, Monday night's commanding, 20-3 win over the Pittsburgh Steelers showed just how many stars San Francisco has on both sides of the ball.

Smith remained poised in prime time only three games after he got sacked nine times in a flop at Baltimore on Thanksgiving night. He was unfazed when Candlestick Park went dark not once but twice to interrupt Monday's game on the big stage, delaying kickoff and then stopping play early in the second quarter.

"No question, lights out, no pun intended," Smith said of the overall performance.

Smith hardly has the gaudy passing numbers or touchdowns of some of his fellow quarterbacks -- his 2,752 yards passing rank ninth in the NFC, while his 16 touchdown completions are good for eighth and he also has an NFL-high 39 sacks. Yet Harbaugh points to many other key statistics that go unnoticed but have helped NFC West-champion San Francisco (11-3) return to the playoffs for the first time in nine years. Most notably, Smith takes care of the football.

The 27-year-old Smith, who rejoined the 49ers this summer as a free agent on a $4.9 million, one-year deal, owns a 61.4 completion percentage that's sixth in the NFC and has the fewest interceptions with five.

"That's the low-hanging fruit," Harbaugh said. "Just go straight to the yardage line or the touchdown-passes line. I think that people that understand football understand that there's a lot more that goes into the job of a quarterback than those statistics."

Smith avoided being sacked Monday night after being taken down 18 times in the previous three games.

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Around the league

* The New England Patriots placed defensive end Andre Carter on injured reserve. Tuesday's move ends the season of the team's leader in sacks with 10 and sidelines a key player on a struggling defense. The Patriots have allowed the most yards in the NFL for nearly the entire season.

Carter started all 14 games. He injured his left quadriceps late in the first quarter of Sunday's 41-23 win over the Broncos.

* Browns quarterback Colt McCoy still can't practice or play, leaving Seneca Wallace to start his second straight game.

McCoy has not been medically cleared by team doctors to return to the field after sustaining a concussion from a helmet-to-helmet hit by Steelers linebacker James Harrison 12 days ago. Browns coach Pat Shurmur said McCoy was at the facility Tuesday and took part in team meetings before being sent home again.

* Houston Texans star receiver Andre Johnson will sit out Thursday night's game against the Indianapolis Colts because of a strained left hamstring. Johnson will miss his ninth game this season.

* The biggest draw in television is going mobile. The Super Bowl will be streamed online and to phones in the U.S. for the first time, the NFL said Tuesday. NBC's broadcasts of wild card Saturday, the Pro Bowl and the Super Bowl will be available on the league's and network's websites and through Verizon's NFL Mobile app.

* Peyton Manning will not participate in Colts practices the rest of the season.

Two days after the four-time league MVP was ruled out of the Colts' final two games, coach Jim Caldwell said Tuesday that Manning won't practice with the team before the season finale Jan. 1, either.

* Cowboys running back Felix Jones missed practice Tuesday because of hamstring tightness.

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