Sunday, January 15, 2012

Best non-SB 49ers game ever. SF 36 - NO 32 Divisional Playoffs

That was the best non-SB 49ers game I've ever seen.  I don't know what else to say.

Every single one of the 13 regular season wins was extremely important because it secured the 1st round bye and home field advantage vs the Saints.  Entering Week 11 after that huge win over the Giants, I thought the 49ers essentially had to turn their focus to maintaining the 2nd seed in the NFC.  At that point, the 8-1 49ers had a 1.5 game lead on the 7-3 Saints.  The Saints didn't lose another game en route to becoming the most potent offensive force while SF succumbed on the road to Baltimore and let down at Arizona.  The late December game in which we rallied twice vs the Seahawks became that much more important.  Not only did we want to beat cheatey petey on his turf, but the narrow 2 point win was the difference between hosting the Saints or trying to beat them at the Superdome's fast track.  Think the track is worth at least 4 points?  Umm, yeah.

Without home field advantage at Candlestick, we probably would not have opened with a 17-0 lead.  We probably wouldn't have held them to just 2 touchdowns through the first 56 minutes.  (We'll get to the last 4 minutes later.)  We probably wouldn't have been in position to win the game.  I say "probably", because who knows what a Harbaugh team would have done.

Again, let's put aside the last 4 minutes.  That part seems like a whole 'nuther conversation.  Leading up to the game, the Saints and that mercurial offense were actually favored.  The weather was in the 60s and sunny, so a muddied, slow field was out of the question.  Brees was an experienced elite QB, just 2 years removed from his championship and 1 week removed from topping the history books with the most passing yards ever in a season.  I was just hoping the 49ers would not get too far behind.

- The 9ers came out looking to hit somebody.  Just when it seemed like our worst fears were nearly realized with a typically efficient Brees 80 yard drive for the easy opening TD, Pierre Thomas was knocked out at the SF 2 yard line while still on his feet by Donte Whitner - fumble recovered by Patrick Willis.

- The Saints' 2nd drive was stymied by Aldon Smith's 3rd down sack for a loss of 11.

- The 49ers first TD came as a complete shock.  Alex Smith connected with Vernon Davis on just the 2nd play of their 2nd drive for a relatively easy TD.  Davis' defenders fell and he jogged into the end zone, reminding me of his TD vs the Giants in Week 10 when their coverage broke down.

- The Saints' 3rd drive was a disaster as SF safety Dashon Goldson read Drew Brees' eyes and returned the interception 41 yards to the NO 4 yard line.  Alex Smith hit Crabtree on a 3rd down slant for a 2 TD lead.  At this point, I'm thinking that now have a chance.  New Orleans will eventually start scoring, but at least we have a 14 point pad to work with.

- On the ensuing kickoff, the Saints returner actually muffs the catch, picks it up and fumbles in the dogpile.  This is really getting to be too much.  Good things never happen in waves like this to my teams.  My boys, aged 3 and 1, are even into it since they've been getting high-fives and thrown into the air every few minutes.  (Repetition is key for youngsters, by the way).  Niners have the ball at the 13.  We must score a TD.  Surely the Saints can't come back from down 21, can they?

- 9ers are held to a FG as Crabtree can't hold onto 3rd down TD pass.  I am not happy about a 17 point lead.  We have to strike while momentum is on our side.  We can't keep NO down forever.  If they score here, they'd only be down 10 points.

- Sure enough, Brees drives down and finds Jimmy Graham for a TD.  I actually thought Graham looked concussed on a play from their first drive and might've hit his head again on this play.  I wish he was.  Not permanently.  You know, just for the day.  If he was out, I figured we had the game in the bag.

- After a 49er 3 and out, I figured we had to stop the Saints to regain our mojo.  What happens?  Brees drives down, and lofts the perfect pass over Colston into his hands, who then kicks the pylon.  What should have been a 21-0 lead is now just a 3 point lead.  Its not even halftime.  The teams finish the quarter taking turns going 3 and out as well as turning the ball over to each other.

So at halftime, its clear that the Saints will in all likelihood score a few more touchdowns in the 2nd half.  The 49ers however, never really pieced together a solid, "matriculatin' down the field" kind of drive, but only capitalized on that one big Smith-Davis play and 2 Saints turnovers which resulted in extremely short fields.  I was happy we weren't facing a 2 TD deficit, but I wasn't sure if we could hold on.  Heck, 4 turnovers with only a 3 point lead to show for it?!?!?  Surely we have used up our quota of takeaways.

- After our opening drive and punt, of course the Saints' Sproles is stripped on the ensuing return and we get the ball on their 26 yard line.  And of course, we end up with just a FG for a 6 point lead.

- There is no more scoring in the 3rd as Justin Smith sacks Brees to stop on drive, while SF continues to flounder on offense.  Absurdly, we are flagged for two straight illegal basketball pick-like plays, we fail miserably on a trick play and Crabtree drops a pass or two.  At this point, I'm texting like crazy to all my 9er fans:  "Why are we not running Gore to death?";  "Why the heck is Brees getting so much time to throw?";  "We can't stop him forever!"; "5 turnovers and we're only up 6!"

- Saints manage a FG early 4th quarter to pull within 3 points.  Do we finally have a TD drive in us to balance out the one that they will probably put together?  More texts: "Why is it that Alex Smith can't handle a freakin blitz!".

- Well, some of my texts are answered.  We finally get to Brees a couple times, including Justin Smith's memorably ridiculous bullrush after which he yanks Brees down with one hand while still grappling with the LT.  Then Gore finally rips off a 42 yard run.  Another: ""We ain't gonna win if we don't score (a TD) right now!".  We don't.  FG pushes our lead only back to 6.

- So. 7:36 left.  Saints need a TD to win.  Its up to our defense, who has not allowed a Brees TD outside of the 2nd quarter.  Its the way it has to be.  De-Fense!  De-Fense!

- 7 Brees passes and 3 minutes later, the Saints have a 24-23 lead.  Sproles takes a short Brees pass, finds room in the middle of the field and scampers in on a 44 yd play, standing up.  After all that defensive effort, we are trailing the most explosive offense in the NFL with 4 min to play.  Disheartening stuff.  But hey, a FG wins the game.

This is where everything turns upside down.  Now I'm thinking that Akers, a feel-good story in itself, is in prime position to win it.  We just need one of those typical grind-it-out, physical, eat-the-clock drives that the 49er are so capable of.  We'll "matriculate" to FG position with little time left and Akers will do the rest.

But instead, Alex Smith throws an inch-perfect bomb off his back foot on the 3rd play of the drive to Vernon Davis near the left sideline for a 37 yard gain.  We're already in FG position. Two short running plays and a false start later, we're faced with 3rd and 7.  If we can just get another 1st down, NO will be forced to use its last timeout and we can run out much of the clock.

Then: the play call of the year.  The most shocking, unpredictable, risky, gutsy, mojo-inducing decision I can ever recall.  An Alex Smith rush to the left?  As he started that way, I thought it was just so he would move away from the blitz - but I was confused as to why they would send him to his weak side.  After a few steps, it was clear that he wasn't pulling up to throw and when he was able to turn the corner with ease, he clearly had the 1st down.  Next thing I see is fast movin' Joe Staley absolutely blocking the crap out of the pesky Saint defender, clearing the sideline path for a sprinting Smith to get to the endzone.

Did we score too quickly?  Yeah, but were the Saints really going to score TDs on back to back possessions after not scoring the entire quarter?  Nah, this one was in the bag.  Even after Smith's poor decision to audible to a failed run on the 2pt try, I felt cautiously comfortable that we had pulled it off.

Brees' TD to Jimmy Graham was the most upsetting thing I've ever seen.  It was like Horry's 3 ptr vs the Kings.  It was like Joakim Noah's gator chomp.  It was like Dos Santos' chip over Howard.  Okay, maybe not as bad as those, but Graham's posturing was planting the seeds of my sports hate for him.

How did our safety completely whiff on him?  Hit him!  Keep the Saints in front of you!  Don't go for the ball!  In just 3 passes and about 30 seconds, Brees has just laid waste to the glorious return of 49er football.  Of course we didn't even bother covering Sproles on the 2pt conversion.  Now a FG would only tie.

And a FG is really just about the best we could hope for.  After all, this is Alex Smith we're talking about.  We don't have Peyton or Brees or Rodgers.  We don't have a Stafford or even the explosiveness of a Newton.  That's not how we've won 13 games.  No, we have a QB who spent 6 years being a bust and 1 year being a game-manager.  Could he possibly score 2 TDs on back to back possessions in the 2 minute drill?  Nope, we're playing for overtime.

1:37 left.  Alex completes a couple of short passes to Gore.  Then an incomplete bomb down the right to Swain which gave off more than just a hint of desperation.  The next play left me in a frenzy.  A 27 yard frozen rope bullet to Vernon Davis, who gallops for another 20 yards.  We are again already in FG territory.  The pass was perfect - lasered, not lofted, into Davis' arms in full stride, just out of reach of the trailing Saint even though the defender had inside position on the route.

After a short pass to Gore and a spike, Smith had one chance on 3rd down from the 14 yard line to win the game.  Otherwise, we would settle for the FG and go to OT.  This is where legends are born, even if they are 7 years into the league and even if they've spent their entire career as an underachieving bust living in the shadow of a fellow draftees MVP and championship success.

In what will go down in 49er history as one of the best moments ever, Smith anticipated Davis on a post and fired it into his chest without regard to the defenders around him.  Davis immediately took a big Roman Harper hit and fell into the endzone.  In Alex Smith's 1st ever playoff game, he led 2 come-from-behind TDs in the last 3 minutes.  It was the first time in playoff history where any QB has done that.  He finished the game with 299 yards, 3 passing TDs, 1 rushing TD, no interceptions and a better passer rating than Brees (103.2 to 93.5).

In Vernon Davis' first playoff game, just a few years after Singletary's excoriating, "can't win with him, can't do it!" presser rant, he finished with 7 big catches for 180 yards and 2 TDs.  The game-winner immediately reminded all 9er fans of  Terrell Owen's emotional TD to finally overcome the Packers in Jan of 1999.  Davis' embrace with Harbaugh will probably be the most enduring image from that game.

But I think the real story is still the new Alex Smith that we never thought we'd ever see.  With one of the greatest come from behind playoff victories in history, he is closer to placing his name beside Montana and Young in the Niner lore.  True, he will need two more W's to do that, but no matter what, he will always have this moment.

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