In an instant classic, 49ers' Smith stands tall above the rest

  • By Steve Wyche
  • Senior Writer
  • Published: Jan. 15, 2012 at 02:58 a.m.
  • Updated: Jan. 15, 2012 at 12:36 p.m.

SAN FRANCISCO -- When Drew Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham connected on the spectacular 66-yard touchdown that gave New Orleans 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 the playoff-tested and red-hot Saints 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 current nine-game winning streak, opted not to double- or triple-cover tight end Vernon Davis, the only receiver who could really beat them. Instead, they blitzed Smith, a total sign of disrespect. All they 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 it into overtime.
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.
A series after catching the Saints in a blitz and racing 28 yards down the left sideline to give San Francisco a stunning 29-25 lead with just more than two 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.
San Francisco 36, New Orleans 32. Epic.
Every quarterback worth his salt has a defining moment or a signature drive. Smith joined the club Saturday in his first playoff game.
This doesn't mean that he and the 49ers will win the Super Bowl or that he'll ever be Brees or Brady. But it means he's not the liability so many of us thought he was. For much of the game he was OK, nothing special -- especially with his receivers dropping so many passes he put on the mark.
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 could never 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 Rodgers 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 on the game-opening drive that sidelined Saints running back Pierre Thomas 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 him last week what he thought about New Orleans' Jimmy Graham being the tight end being 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 he 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.