SAN FRANCISCO -- When Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham connected on a spectacular 66-yard touchdown pass that gave the Saints a three-point lead with 1:36 remaining, the prospect of Alex Smith -- Alex Smith of all people -- out-Breesing Brees and leading the 49ers 85 yards to trump playoff-tested and red-hot New Orleans seemed about as probable as a rookie head coach taking a routinely underachieving team to the NFC Championship Game.
It seemed so unlikely that the Saints, who beat Matt Ryan and Matthew Stafford twice and Cam Newton and Eli Manning during their nine-game winning streak, opted not to double- or triple-cover tight end Vernon Davis, the only receiver who really could beat them. Instead, they blitzed Smith, a total sign of disrespect. All New Orleans had to do was sit back and keep San Francisco in the middle of the turf to burn time off the clock. If the 49ers were lucky, they'd get a field goal to send the game into overtime.
Mariucci's déjà vu
Forget that Smith and the 49ers had come back on so many teams in the fourth quarter this season. He didn't have it in him -- no signature moment or drive. This game was a wrap.
Then Smith graduated.
One series after catching the Saints in a blitz and racing 28 yards down the left sideline to give the 49ers a stunning 29-25 lead with just more than 2 minutes left, Smith drove them 85 yards, connecting twice to Davis -- once on a 47-yard pitch-and-catch and again on the 14-yard touchdown that capped a stunning, game-sealing drive.
Every quarterback worth his salt has a defining moment or a signature drive. Smith joined the club Saturday in his first playoff game.
Smith answered the bell at Money Time. We never knew if he could because he never had the chance. With different coordinators every season and a team that couldn't harness its talent, Smith and the 49ers were perennial pretenders.
In one season, under the guidance of rookie coach Jim Harbaugh, whose consistent approach players say they love, Smith and the 49ers sit a win away from the Super Bowl. It's a feel-good story that would have read well if it ended against the Saints. It didn't, and now Smith and the 49ers have the chance to dispel more doubt.
It's not fair, though, to look too far forward right now when so many special things took place in one incredible game that belongs in the lore of a 49ers franchise with a lengthy list of historic moments.
Cornerback Carlos Rogers showed why he was worthy of his Pro Bowl selection. Safety Donte Whitner changed the course of the game with a Ronnie Lott-style blow that sidelined Saints running back Pierre Thomas on the game-opening drive and set the tone for a defensive performance that New Orleans will feel for weeks to come.
Justin Smith, my God, Justin Smith. He is every bit worthy of the Defensive Player of the Year award for what he did during the season. What he did in this game, especially on the play where he reset Pro Bowl offensive tackle Jermon Bushrod into Brees' lap and then body-snatched Brees to the ground, might not be captured adequately by even the highest praise.
Then there was Davis, whose receiving numbers were down, but whose overall game was better than ever this season.
I asked Davis last week what he thought about Graham being the tight end most discussed in this game. Pride is a dangerous thing. Davis paused, then rattled off a series of compliments about Graham -- all worthy and seemingly sincere. But you could tell Davis wanted to prove that Graham, prototype tight end 5.0, wasn't going to upstage him.
Graham did his thing, but so did Davis -- seven catches, 180 yards, two touchdowns and tears of joy after grabbing the game-winner. Like Smith, this was Davis' first taste of the postseason. Through all of Smith's highs and lows, Davis was his most strident advocate. He believed. Maybe that's why when it was crunch time, he showed up in conjunction with Smith.
He held on to the ball and broke tackles and made plays when other players didn't.
This was a game during which the ballers balled and those not quite ready for prime time blinked.
Smith didn't blink, and now we know what he's capable of doing. There still will be doubt that maybe he got lucky or played the game of his life -- unable to parlay that into more. That could happen. But for a game, man what a game, he and the 49ers gave us something special.