SANTA CLARA There are two schools of thought that explain Alex Smith's struggles the past two games.
One takes into account everything that's been swirling around Smith since the offseason.
There was the difficult contract negotiation, which ended when the 49ers gave Smith a middle-of-the-road, three-year deal and provides the team an easy exit from the contract on April 1.
There was coach Jim Harbaugh's interest in then-free agent Peyton Manning and Smith's subsequent meeting with the Dolphins.
More recently, it's been the frequent appearances by backup quarterback Colin Kaepernick, which might be undermining Smith's status as the starter, disrupting Smith's rhythm, or both.
All of that has put a burden on Smith's confidence, so the theory goes, which has begun to unravel in the past two games, a terrible outing for Smith in a loss to the Giants and a ho-hum effort in a win over the Seahawks.
The other explanation is that he has a sore finger on his throwing hand.
Smith on Thursday dismissed both as reasons for sputtering performances but seemed to give a bit more credence to the finger theory than he has up to this point. Smith said he's tried not to think about the middle digit since spraining it late in a win over Buffalo on Oct. 7 and that a weekend off helped it heal.
"Not having to do a ton with it, letting it rest over the weekend, was nice," he said.
As for a shaken confidence, Smith laughed and said, "I think people are just reading into a lot of different stuff and have no idea of what's going on around here. My confidence is no different than it was a week ago, than it was a month ago, than it was a year ago. No different."
If Smith felt undermined about the offseason events, it didn't manifest itself during impressive, early-season wins over Green Bay and Detroit. If Kaepernick is an issue, how did Smith throw for 303 yards and have the best statistical game of his career against Buffalo, a game in which Kaepernick made a season-high six appearances?
Instead, Smith raised a third theory that the 49ers simply have played tough opponents.
"There are people that expect the same thing over and over again," he said. "That (Seattle) was a good defense we played (last) Thursday night.
"We played them on a short week. You look what they did vs. a lot of good quarterbacks this year. Look what they did against Aaron (Rodgers). They beat Tom Brady. Look what they did against (Tony) Romo."
Indeed, Smith's passer rating against Seattle 74.5 was in line with the passer ratings the Cowboys' Romo (74.1), the Packers' Rodgers (81.5) and the Patriots' Brady (79.3) managed against the Seahawks.
All four quarterbacks threw as many interceptions as they did touchdowns against Seattle. The difference is that Smith was the only winning quarterback in that group.
It won't get any easier for Smith and the 49ers' passing attack Monday night.
The suddenly defense-oriented Cardinals have 22 sacks this season and have held opponents to six touchdown passes, tied for the league low. The average passer rating against them, 67.4, is the second lowest in the NFL.
Smith said he expected another hard-fought game, just like last week's.
"When you know a team this well, you play them that often I just feel like naturally you rarely see blowouts either way," he said. "The games are always coming down to the wire. That's just the way it is."