Niners write new chapter in thrilling win
San Francisco 49ers’ playoff history is measured in timely increments of majestic lore. Thirty years ago this week at Candlestick Park, Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark’s outstretched arms with “The Catch.” Steve Young to Terrell Owens in 1998 sealed another stunning playoff victory.
Saturday, it was another eye-popping playoff pitch-and-catch, Version 3.0: Alex Smith to Vernon Davis for 14 yards with nine seconds remaining, a final shot that sent the high-octane New Orleans Saints reeling and the 49ers straight into the NFC championship round with a 36-32 victory.
“This is big for us,” said Davis, the gifted tight end and team leader who jumped into the arms of franchise-salvaging coach Jim Harbaugh after the final gun and wept with unbridled joy. “It’s history. It’s legendary.”
The front office was equally astonished. “Amazing. Can you believe how this happened, with all the twists and turns in this game?” admitted 49ers owner Denise DeBartolo York, who came away from a joyous 49ers postgame locker room beaming.
“You know what?” she said, turning serious. “It starts with Alex and Jim Harbaugh. He believed in Alex. He made them believe in themselves.”
That was a season-long theme and it never became more important than Saturday, with the 49ers staring down the NFL’s most prolific offense.
Three touchdowns by both teams in the final 2:11, including Brees’ 66-yard scoring rope to All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham with 1:37 remaining that put the Saints ahead, 32-29, left a packed Candlestick Park breathless and everyone on edge.
“My heart was breaking when I saw that,” said All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis, who had been such a disruptive mainstay for a 49ers defense that forced five turnovers, including two Brees interceptions. “But Vernon came on the way we all knew he could. He saved my heart. I’m not even going to lie to you — I was hurting. I was hurting real bad.
“But that’s what I Iove the most about my teammates, especially today: When you’re at your lowest, they pull you back up."
Improbable? The bookies thought so. Those who have watched this 49ers team, a longtime dog coming off a nine-year playoff drought that quickly matured this season into a force under the firm but nurturing hand of Harbaugh, figured this could be the outcome.
That’s because the 49ers’ fourth-ranked defense and their special teams units were aggressive enough to give Smith, Davis, Frank Gore and a loaded San Francisco offense enough room to breathe and wait for the big finish, forcing four first-half turnovers that kept the Saints trailing, but still uncomfortably close at halftime, 17-14.
The 49ers’ aggressive 3-4 scheme chipped away at quarterback Drew Brees, who was coming off consecutive dominating performances, and effectively disrupted his rhythm in the passing game.
They dropped eight into coverage to smother the Saints’ gifted corps of receivers, limiting the damage playmakers such as Graham and 1,100-yard receiver Marques Colston could do to them.
Man, zone, “They kept us on our toes,” said Sproles, who finished with only three rushing yards on three carries but caught 15 balls for 119 yards, among them a 44-yard TD pass with 4:02 remaining that pushed the Saints in front 24-23. “That’s one of the great NFL defenses and they showed that today.”
This being the Saints, they would get their big plays — Graham’s 14-yard scoring catch with 9:32 left before the half and Colston’s 25-yard TD reception just over five minutes later wiped away a 17-0 Niners advantage.
In a game filled with monster plays, it was especially significant that a few of them would belong to Smith, who has so maligned over his seven-year NFL career in San Francisco. He finally got his signature 49ers moment with a beautifully timed 28-yard quarterback speed option rollout that found open space directly into the end zone.
“QB 9” is the play, and it caught the Saints completely off-guard.
“It was the perfect call for the blitz and they blitzed us all day,” said 49ers left tackle Joe Staley, who watched with pride while wide receiver Kyle Williams blocked on the edge to free a path for Smith’s scoring run.
“I loved the call,” said Smith, who completed 24-of-42 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns, and proudly wore his Harbaugh-issued “blue collar” work shirt to his postgame news conference.
Smith’s numbers paled in comparison to Brees, who completed 40 of 63 for 462 yards and four touchdowns. But he was sacked three times, hurried often and threw two rare postseason picks, marking his first playoff interception in five years.
“They were a big, tough, physical team coming to get you,” Brees said. “They thrive on that, and that’s what has been such a huge part of their success is their ability to stop the run and rush the passer.
“And when you catch the ball, they are going to light you up and try to get the ball out, which they were able to do a few times. So it’s not that it surprised us.”
But it sure did work.
How will the 49ers’ playoff timeline read now? Montana-to-Clark was the epic touchdown of their new era and for a franchise about to take flight toward five Super Bowl titles over the next 15 NFL seasons.
San Francisco’s most noteworthy postseason dry spells each spanned nine seasons (1972-81; 2002-11). Smith-to-Davis — “It’s called, “Vernon Post” Harbaugh clarified — arrived almost 30 years to the day after Montana–to-Clark, and that may be what introduces a new generation of 49ers to playoff glory. They are now one victory away from Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis.
Davis, who had 180 receiving yards — an NFL playoff record for a tight end — wanted everyone to know how close they were to making their own mark when he addressed his teammates at halftime.
“It was very emotional,” Davis described his speech. “One shot. That was the message. We only have one shot and if we don’t take advantage of it, we go home.”
Said Harbaugh, “You live or die in these games. We live.”
And the 49ers’ timeline of greatness may get a few more notches along the way.