Amazing, intensifying, dramatic, nerve-racking. All would be great words to describe today’s game between the Saints and the 49ers. The word that you shouldn’t hear is upset. The 49ers are the better team and they proved it. Whomever we end up playing next week, that team will have a tall task. Next week we will play for the right to the Superbowl. Until then, 24-hour rule takes effect, lets enjoy this great win.
The game started on a typical drive by the New Orleans Saints. Drew Brees efficiently moved the Saints into the redzone only to find out why the Niners 2nd in points allowed. Safety Donte Whitner came up with a big hit on 3rd down to jar the ball loose and the Niners recovered at the 3.
The Niners would move the ball out of the shadow of their own goal post only to have to punt it away. The Niners would not start anywhere near their own 3 yard line after that.
Following a 3 and out by New Orleans the 49ers started their 2nd drive at their own 46. It only took two plays for QB Alex Smith to hit TE Vernon Davis down the sideline for a 49 yd touchdown and a 7-0 lead.
The Niners over the next 2 possessions would stretch that lead to 17-0 thanks to an interception by Goldson that was returned to the Saints 4 and then a recovery by the special teams unit on the kickoff that led to a 25 yard field goal by Mr. Automatic David Akers.
Like most great teams, the Saints didn’t go quietly in the night. The Saints would answer with scores on their next 2 possessions and make it a 3 point game going into halftime. The momentum that we had at the start of the game was gone, and everyone at the FOX was already chalking it up as a Saints win.
After going nowhere on the first drive of the 2nd half, the special teams came up with another huge turnover this time on the punt. After stripping Sproles and setting up at the Saints 26 the 49ers went 3 and out and settled for another Akers field goal. The field goal would be the only points of the quarter as we went to the 4th with the Niners leading 20-14.
The Saints started off the 4th with a field goal of their own to bring it back to a 3 point game. After a 3 and out by the Niners, it was evident that this game would go down to the wire. With a great punt by Andy Lee the Saints were pinned back at their own 18. The 49ers defense came up big forcing the high-power Saints offense into a 3-and-out of their own.
The 49ers took over on the exchange of field possession at their own 36 yard line. The next play would be one of the most memorable of Frank Gore’s career. After screaming that the Niners hadn’t ran the ball enough, Frank Gore on first down took a hand-off up the middle 42 yards down to the Saints 22. A younger Gore would have scored, and perhaps put our minds and pounding hearts at ease. Instead the Saints defense held suit and David Akers trotted out for another field goal.
Up by 6 with 7:40 to play left every 49er fan squeamish. Drew Brees would not disappoint as he led his team down the field once and hit Darren Sproles on a short dump-off that Sproles took the rest of the way to the house for a 44 yard touchdown. With a little over 4 minutes to play the Saints took their 1st lead. You could feel the air be sucked out of the life of Candlestick.
What would happen next would forever erase the tag of “bust” from the biography of Alex Smith.
He would find Vernon Davis down the left sideline with a perfectly thrown missile that couldn’t have been guided any better. The 49ers would be in field goal range for Akers. After a strange set of events that involved a timeout followed by a flag for 12 men in the huddle, the greatest play in the last 9 years of the 49ers organization would happen. On 3rd and 8 from the Saints 28, the Niners dialed up a quarterback run. Alex Smith would tip-toe down the left sideline all the way into the endzone. With 2:11 left, the Niners had reclaimed the lead.
With as great as the run was, I questioned why didn’t Smith slide down at the 1? At the time the Saints only had 1 timeout and could have used it there or let it run to the 2 minute warning. From there we could have ran the clock down to 30 seconds and settle for a field goal or punch it in with less time on the clock.
While that can be debated, what’s not is 2:11 is too much time for Brees and the Saints offense. Down by 5 after the failed 2 point conversation by the Niners, it took the Saints only 4 plays to go the length of the field for the go ahead touchdown. They were then able to execute their 2 pointer and were back in front 32-29.
That run after the catch by Jimmy Graham, who was shaken up early in the game, looked like the dagger thru the hearts of Niner fans everywhere.
With only 1:32 to work with, Alex Smith would start from his own 15 with one timeout, with a team that looked diminished. After a couple short passes and then a deep missed opportunity to Swain, Smith would find Vernon Davis once again this time for 47 yards and down to the Saints 20. After a short completion to Gore the 49ers spiked the ball with just 14 ticks left on the clock. The former 1st round picks would come up big once again as Smith threw a strike into tight coverage to his TE Davis at the goal line and the ball stuck. The eruption at the stadium was large enough to strike fear in many Californians.
The often criticized veteran quarterback that had been booed off the field and benched for countless other career back-up quarterbacks lead the Niners to their first playoff win in 9 years with not just 1 but 2 touchdown drives in the final minutes. The final touchdown to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds left had to remind 49er fans of a couple of plays in 49er history. The first, as you may have guessed was “The Catch” in the NFC championship game 30 years and 4 days ago. The 49ers then beat the Cowboys in an unbelievable last minute comeback where the great Joe Montana hit Dwight Clark in the back of the endzone in San Francisco.
The other play would be the pass from Steve Young to Terrell Owens against the Packers with :08 remaining know as “The Catch 2”. I’ll never forget the call as T.O. laid in the endzone “he caught it, he caught it” with :03 left on the clock. It was perhaps the greatest throw I’d ever seen. The ball fit perfectly between 5 defenders and right into the hands of Owens. It would be the last game of Reggie White’s career.
What will be the name of this play? This Drive? This game? That might be unclear for now, but what isn’t that this 49er team is here to stay. They didn’t get lucky against a great team, they beat a great team, and for that this team gets a shot in the NFC Championship game and a shot at the Superbowl.