Top 20 Games of 2011

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Game 1: Saints at 49ers Divisional Playoff

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The ball hung up in the air long enough for many folks at Three Rivers to ask, Are we actually gonna lose this thing?

The Pittsburgh Steelers didn’t, even if Jim Harbaugh’s Hail Mary came oh-so-close to settling in Aaron Bailey’s hands and sending the Indianapolis Colts to the Super Bowl.

The 1995 Colts weren’t even supposed to be there. They had eked into the playoffs at 9-7, and were predicted to go down to the San Diego Chargers in the wild-card round. Wrong. Then the top-seeded Kansas City Chiefs were supposed to easily dismiss Harbaugh’s team. Fail. Then in the AFC Championship Game, Harbaugh, who had never done enough to Mike Ditka’s liking in Chicago, shocked the football world with a spectacular performance and near-takedown of the mighty Steelers.

Harbaugh shocked 'em again in 2011. Did anyone expect the rookie head coach to lead the San Francisco 49ers to a 13-3 record and damn near secure a spot in the Super Bowl? How about Alex Smith becoming one of the more efficient quarterbacks in pro football?

Well, who better to mentor a quarterback who had yet to fulfill his promise as a former No. 1 overall pick than Harbaugh, a 14-year journeyman in his playing days? Both the 49ers’ surprising record and Smith’s sudden development came under Harbaugh’s guidance. And while Harbaugh’s instant impact was a season-long storyline, make no mistake, the divisional-round upset of the New Orleans Saints was the Abbey Road of his collection of hits.

Sure, San Francisco had already won 13 games and was thought of as a player in the NFC. But few believed they would be able to beat the high-octane Saints, who had a far superior quarterback in Drew Brees. New Orleans was not an NFC West team that Harbaugh’s team could dominate, and frankly, a Smith-Brees track meet would almost assuredly not go the 49ers’ way.

But when San Francisco went up 17-zip in the second quarter, Harbaugh was greatly exceeding expectations yet again. Meanwhile, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio’s unit was giving Brees yardage, but not points.

Of course, Drew Brees wouldn’t be Drew Brees if he didn’t get the Saints back in the game. First he hit tight end Jimmy Graham over the middle for a touchdown. Minutes later, he threw an absolute beauty of a pass to Marques Colston down the right sideline for another touch. It was now 17-14 heading into halftime, and everyone in America knew we had something here.

Both defenses held their ground for much of the second half, with the Niners logging two field goals to the Saints’ one. Finally, Brees was able to lead New Orleans on a nine-play, 79-yard march that ended with a typically spectacular play from Darren Sproles (a 44-yard catch-and-run for a touchdown). With just 4:11 left, the Saints suddenly held their first lead of the game, but it was a precarious 24-23 edge.

That’s precisely the spot in the football-time continuum when Saints-Niners departed being a solid postseason affair and evolved into the game of the year.

Smith responded to the Saints’ touchdown by driving the 49ers to the New Orleans 28 in less than two minutes, with the big play coming on a 37-yard completion to Vernon Davis. Then on third-and-8, offensive coordinator Greg Roman made perhaps the most brilliant play call of the year -- a quarterback keeper that not only completely caught the Saints unawares, but was perfectly executed for the go-ahead touchdown.

San Francisco spread four wide on the play, with the two receivers on the left in tight. Each blocked down, while two linemen pulled to lead Smith around the edge. Left tackle Joe Staley made a tremendous block almost 20 yards downfield, taking safety Roman Harper’s legs out from under him. Although the Niners failed to convert the ensuing two-point conversion, it was now 29-24 with the whole crowd going bonkers.

Enter the Brees-Graham connection, part deux.

New Orleans’ offense had 2:11 to drive the field against the NFC’s toughest D, and yet, Sean Payton’s Saints needed all of about 30 seconds of it. Brees caught Patrick Willis covering Graham over the middle and threw another back shoulder strike. As Graham spun to make the running circus catch, 49ers safety Donte Whitner whiffed, leaving the athletic tight end startled, with ball and nothing but green pastures in front of him. Touchdown.  (A 66-yard touchdown, to be exact.)

A two-point conversion put this ridiculous football game at 32-29, Saints, with 1:37 remaining.

Smith, the perennial disappointer, couldn’t possibly bring his club back with the game on the line, right? He couldn’t deliver the stunning desperation drive that Harbaugh almost pulled off 16 years prior ... right?

The answer to both came on a laser to Davis on a skinny post close to midfield. Smith put the ball on his tight end, with Davis scooting all the way down to the Saints’ 20. Then, on third-and-3 from the 14 -- with only 14 seconds left -- Smith was on the money again, delivering a perfect throw between the linebacker and safety to Davis, who held onto the ball in the end zone despite instantaneous contact from Harper.

With that game-winner, well, Smith had arrived. His head coach had, too -- coming out on top this time.

And when all was said and done, there was no doubt that Saints-49ers had been the best game of the entire season.

Same ol’ situation 1: Defense was certainly watered-down across the league in 2011, and hard-hitting become somewhat of a lost art. Not with the Niners, though. San Francisco defenders always swarmed to the football and routinely delivered punishing blows. This became evident very early in the game against New Orleans. With the Saints knocking on the doorstep of the end zone in the first quarter, Whitner blew up Pierre Thomas at the 2-yard line, causing a fumble that the Niners would recover. The devastating hit, which was deemed completely legal, instantly swung momentum in a scoreless game and knocked Thomas out of the game.

Same ol’ situation 2: While the San Francisco secondary could be beaten from time to time, a big part of that was because teams just couldn’t run against them. The Niners’ rush defense was tops in the league, allowing only 77.3 yards rushing per game.

Whitner had already created one turnover early in the game with his crushing blow to Thomas. Fellow safety Dashon Goldson got into the act later in the first quarter, baiting Brees to throw it in the deep middle before making a beautiful pick, and returning it 41 yards. Alex Smith would hit Michael Crabtree with a short touchdown pass to capitalize on the takeaway.

Same ol’ situation 3: When teams play a Cover 2, it’s often the middle linebacker who must keep up with the tight end over the middle. That’s almost impossible to do against Brees and Graham. As soon as Brees sees the back of a linebacker’s jersey even with Graham, he throws it high and on the back shoulder -- just like he did to get the Saints on the board in the second quarter with a 14-yard scoring strike to Graham.

Brees did it again in the final two minutes of this wild playoff battle, a bang-bang play over the middle that resulted in Graham scoring from 66 yards out.

NFL ridiculousness: If you were to bury one half of any NFL game for Chuck Heston and any other guys walking around Earth 1,000 years from now to find, then going with the second half of Saints-Niners would be as good as any. Here’s another look at the final few minutes of the best game 2011 had to offer.

Best player on the field: Believe it or not, Alex Smith. He did what Brees failed to do: protect the football. Smith was the least-intercepted quarterback in football in 2011, and continued that trend with zero picks in 42 pass attempts against the Saints. Yet he threw three touchdown passes and added a 28-yard touchdown run for good measure.

Why this game is No. 1: This was the game everyone remembers most. Of the 50 or so people I talked to about games from last season, this was the contest that always came up. Much like our No. 1 game of 2010, this one was easily discernible from the rest.

Saints-Niners pitted the league’s most effective offense against its most disruptive defense. While one of Bountygate’s main storylines has become New Orleans’ defensive preparation for San Francisco’s offense, there were no ill effects to be found during the flow of the game.

Smith played the game of his life, while Brees showed why he is a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

Throw in the last couple minutes, complete with three spectacular touchdowns and a crowd going certifiably nutso, and it’s impossible to not rank this No. 1.

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