After years of torment from fans and a steady stream of critics lining up to question his every move, Alex Smith finally got his chance to shine on the NFL’s big stage.
And boy did he deliver.
Smith engineered two fourth-quarter touchdown drives, including finding Vernon Davis for a 9-yard touchdown with nine seconds left to vault the 49ers to a riveting 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints in a wild back-and-forth NFC divisional playoff matchup at Candlestick Park.
“It was us against history,” Davis said. “Us against ‘no,’ us against ‘can’t.’ We managed to pull it off.”
After catching their breath, the 49ers will turn their attention to the NFC championship next weekend, their first since 1997.
San Francisco will meet the winner of today’s Green Bay Packers-New York Giants game in the conference title game on Jan. 22, with the right to represent the NFC in the Super Bowl up for grabs. If the Packers win, the Niners will head to Green Bay. If New York wins, the game will be back at Candlestick.
The early story Saturday was turnovers, as the Saints threw interceptions and fumbled to dig themselves into an early 17-0 hole.
But Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who set an NFL record for completions in a playoff game with 40 in 63 attempts, slowly brought New Orleans back into it.
Brees, who threw for 461 yards, hit Jimmy Graham and Marques Coltson for TDs in the second quarter to make it 17-14 at the half.
Brees and the Saints didn’t take their first lead of the day until he found Darren Sproles, who set a playoff record with 15 receptions, from 44 yards out with 4:02 left in the game for a 24-23 New Orleans lead.
But that’s when Smith went to work.
Smith marched the Niners into field goal range and when it seemed like the 49ers were going to be content to let All-Pro kicker David Akers take a shot at giving them a late lead, coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman had a trick up their sleeve.
On third down, Smith took the shotgun snap and sprinted around left end. Smith received a huge block downfield from left tackle Joe Staley to spring him into the end zone for the go-ahead 28-yard touchdown run, setting off the 49er Faithful into a frenzy.
“Once I got on the edge I saw [I] got the first and it was just a matter of if [I’d] get the six,” Smith said.
Trees wasn’t done however, as he quickly found Graham, who muscled his way to a 66-yard touchdown with just 1:37 left and draining all the energy from the ’Stick.
But all it did, instead, was give Smith another shot to silence his doubters. He once again marched the Niners right down the field and into field-goal range. Instead of playing it conservative, Smith went to his go-to guy Davis, who took a big hit, but held on for the eventual winning score.
“I didn’t want to force it,” said Smith, who finished 24-of-42 for 299 yards and three TDs passing and the one on the ground. “It’s a fine line. Vernon made it right [though].”
An emotional Davis ran off the field and into the arms of coach Jim Harbaugh, a scene reminiscent of Terrell Owens’ game-winning catch against the Green Bay Packers on Jan. 3, 1999 game against the Green Bay.
“What matters most is we get to go on and play another game,” Niners linebacker Patrick Willis said.