San Francisco's hard-hitting, opportunistic defense set the tone in the 49ers' thrilling 36-32 playoff win the same way it has all season.
From Justin Smith and Aldon Smith harassing Drew Brees all day, to Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman shutting down the running game and Dashon Goldson making punishing hits and key plays from the secondary, the defense is the biggest reason for the resurgence in San Francisco that has the 49ers (14-3) back in the NFC championship for the first time since the 1997 season.
"It's a lot better than traveling to Wisconsin. More importantly, we're playing a team we've already faced," cornerback Carlos Rogers said Sunday. "It's not as hard as preparing for another team we haven't faced yet."
"Home game huh?" Whitner tweeted Sunday once his opponent had been determined.
"It let the (Saints') offense know we were going to be physical all day," Whitner said of the hit on Thomas, who left with a head injury and never returned.
"We've got a great defense. We feel like we can stop anyone," Bowman said. "When it's not working for our offense, it's our job to get the ball back for them as many times as we can. That's all it was. If those guys aren't doing well it's our job to pick it up. That's what a team is and I think we have a great one here."
First-year coach Jim Harbaugh brought defensive coordinator Vic Fangio along with him from Stanford when he was hired last January - and Fangio has developed his unit into one of the NFL's best.
"We like to think that we play defense the right way," Fangio said. "We play physical, we play with our hands. We run to the ball. We don't try and do anything too fancy, although we do have our changeups here and there. We try and play defense the old-fashioned, hard school way."
The Niners had 38 takeaways during the regular season to only 10 turnovers. Their plus-28 turnover differential matched the 2010 Patriots for the second-best mark in NFL history since 1941.
They forced five more Saturday, and only had one turnover themselves.
"We got the turnovers and were able to get to Eli," Rogers recalled. "The team has gotten better since we played them. They're familiar with us just as we're familiar with them."
San Francisco's determined defenders heard all last week how difficult it would be to stop Brees and Co., knowing many figured they'd fail.
Goldson had six interceptions for the NFC West champions during the regular season, then his biggest yet Saturday. That first-quarter pick snapped Brees' NFL-record streak of 226 postseason passes without an interception dating to the NFC championship game against Chicago five years ago.
"Our guys were humming. We were able to pry a couple out and that was big," Fangio said. "The interceptions were big also."
"I had figured coming into this game they would feel like, `Let's keep everything in front of us, let's not give up big plays and obviously do a good job against the rush and try to put them in third-and-long situations,"' Brees said. "They did, yet again, a great job stopping the run in a lot of cases which we felt like in order to really get chunks, we would have to throw it. Obviously that's a great defense. It's one of the best defenses in the league."
Goldson was re-signed to a one-year contract as a free agent in August to complement newcomers and fellow defensive backs Whitner and Carlos Rogers. Against the Saints, Goldson had a team-leading 11 tackles to go with the first-quarter interception and two passes defensed. Bowman also made 11 tackles, 10 of those solo.
"We got some spectacular stops," Harbaugh said. "On third down, I thought they were outstanding. Five takeaways in the game. I know the special teams contributed to that as well. Very opportunistic today. Got pressure on their quarterback. Made plays on the ball, and made them when they were there to be made. Our guys in the secondary made them. It was a terrific job by our defense, once again. You just love the way they play. You love the way they compete. Love how hard they work on the field."
The 49ers sacked the record-setting Brees three times, including rookie Aldon Smith's pounding for an 11-yard loss on third down in the first quarter. All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith brought Brees to the ground for a 9-yard loss in the third quarter and Ahmad Brooks added a fourth-quarter sack on which Brees lost 7 yards.
"We wanted to come out and play our style of football, which is playing physical, being a great tackling team, and playing with good fundamentals which has carried us all year," Fangio said. "We just wanted to play the way we've played all year, particularly starting early in the game."
Whitner definitely did his part.
"I told myself that I was going to hit anything moving today and that I was going to be extremely physical, even if I hit my own guys," he said. "Luckily, I didn't hit too many of my own guys."