Saints 32

(13-3, 5-3 away)

49ers 36

(13-3, 7-1 home)

Coverage: FOX

4:30 PM ET, January 14, 2012

Candlestick Park, San Francisco, CA 

1 2 3 4 T
NO 0 14 0 1832
SF 14 3 3 1636

Top Performers

Passing: D. Brees (NO) - 462 YDS, 4 TD, 2 INT

Rushing: F. Gore (SF) - 13 CAR, 89 YDS

Receiving: V. Davis (SF) - 7 REC, 180 YDS, 2 TD

Alex Smith, 49ers bounce sloppy Saints, charge into NFC title game news services

SAN FRANCISCO -- In one triumphant afternoon, playoff first-timer Alex Smith joined a pair of 49ers Hall of Fame quarterbacks with his own indelible postseason moment.

Joe Montana had "The Catch." Steve Young had "The Catch II." Now, Smith added another epic play to the 49ers' storied history: "The Grab."

Smith completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds left just after Drew Brees had put the high-powered Saints ahead, and resurgent San Francisco capitalized on five New Orleans turnovers for a thrilling 36-32 playoff victory Saturday.

"You've got to call it 'The Grab,' " Davis said of his play. "We were down. I had to make it happen to take my teammates where we want to go."

What a way to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of "The Catch."

Montana to Clark then. Smith to Davis now.

Smith ran for a 28-yard TD with 2:11 left and threw another scoring pass to Davis in the first quarter. Coach Jim Harbaugh's NFC West champions (14-3) proved that a hard-hitting, stingy defense can still win in the modern, wide-open NFL by holding off one of the league's most dynamic offenses.

"This is huge for us," Davis said. "It's history, legendary, anything you can describe."

Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left and the Saints seemed poised to rally from an early 17-point deficit when Smith and Davis delivered once more. It was a wild back-and-forth finish featuring an impressive passing duel over the waning moments.

Their highlight show came in the opposite end zone from where Clark caught a stretched-out 6-yard pass from Montana on Jan. 10, 1982. Saturday's game-winner by a leaping Davis -- who plowed over a defender as he landed -- came in the same end zone where Young hit Terrell Owens for a winning TD with 3 seconds left in a 30-27 wild-card win over the Packers in the 1999 playoffs. T.O.'s grab became known as "The Catch II."

San Francisco triumphed in its first playoff game in nine years and will move on to face the New York Giants or defending champion Green Bay Packers, who play Sunday. A win by the Giants would give the 49ers the home field.

The 49ers pulled off another last-second win in a season full of them -- and on a day former coach George Seifert served as honorary captain for the coin toss. San Francisco came from behind for five victories during the regular season, four on the road.

Smith helped the Niners become the first team in NFL history to score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final 3 minutes to win a playoff game, according to STATS LLC.

Davis, who wept on the sideline afterward days after saying he was overwhelmed early on by Harbaugh's thick playbook, finished with seven catches for 180 yards. It was the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game. He averaged 25.7 yards per catch.

Smith found Davis for a 47-yard completion on a cross to the left sideline with 31 seconds left and Smith then connected with Frank Gore to put the Niners on the 14 for third down. Davis produced on a play they call "Vernon Post" -- one they worked on all week, just from the right side instead of the left where it worked Saturday.

Brees came up big down the stretch just as he did throughout a record-setting season, also hitting Darren Sproles for a 44-yard TD with 4:02 remaining -- one of Sproles' 15 catches for 119 yards.

"It stings right now because of the expectation level that we had coming into this tournament and understanding that if we win here we're into the NFC championship game and anything can happen," Brees said. "That's tough. Tough to swallow at this point."

With Donte Whitner bringing the bruising hits and Dashon Goldson, Patrick Willis and their defensive mates pressuring Brees and forcing turnovers from every angle, surprising San Francisco is a win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since capturing the proud franchise's fifth championship after the 1994 season.

Brees, whose team was coming off consecutive 600-yard games, completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns and was sacked three times. He also threw two interceptions, his first in the postseason in five years, and New Orleans (14-4) fell short again in its quest to get back to the Super Bowl after winning it all two years ago. The Saints are still searching for the first postseason road victory in franchise history after falling to 0-5.

"Kind of an unbelievable game the way it went back and forth," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "It's obviously a difficult game to lose."

How far these 49ers have come since that 24-3 trouncing they took back in August at the Superdome in the teams' exhibition opener. Now, Harbaugh's "Who's got it better than us? No-body!" group is drawing comparisons to the good ol' days of Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Young. And of course, Clark, who came through to beat Dallas in the NFC title game.

All-Pro David Akers, the Niners' most experienced playoff veteran whose 44 field goals set a single-season record, kicked three more when it mattered most -- from 25, 41 and 37 yards.

The underdog 49ers made the big plays on both sides of the ball and on special teams.

"Guys were so confident, as long as we had time we had a shot," Smith said.

They also had a towel-waving sellout crowd of 69,732 behind them at Candlestick Park on a beautiful sunny winter day in the Bay Area. It was 62 degrees at kickoff.

Who Dat? It's the Saints headed home to the Big Easy empty-handed.

A year ago, New Orleans came out West and suffered a stunning loss to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wild-card round.

The Saints had lost five fumbles all season, then gave three away Saturday against San Francisco's opportunistic defense that pressured all day.

Harbaugh's "don't overcook it" theme rang true as the 49ers relied on what got them here -- perhaps the league's best defense and special teams.

Brees drove the Saints close to the goal line on their opening drive but Pierre Thomas lost that fumble and was lost for the game to a head injury after being hit by Whitner. Two other turnovers came on special teams.

Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick booed so often his first six seasons, hit Davis on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter and then Michael Crabtree on a 4-yard TD strike as the 49ers jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead. He finished 24 for 42 for 299 yards with a 103.2 passer rating.

"It shows he's becoming an elite quarterback. I'm glad the world could see what he did today," Willis said.

Smith and his offense were determined to make their mark on these playoffs after being overlooked all season, and showed a little flair of their own. Davis dunked the football over the goal post after his score to make Saturday the Niners' most significant game on the NFL's big stage since rallying to stun the New York Giants 39-38 in January 2003.

Brees threw two first-half interceptions and had his NFL-record streak of 226 postseason passes without an interception snapped on Goldson's pick in the opening quarter. Brees' streak dated to the NFC Championship Game against Chicago five years ago.

But he hit a well-guarded Graham for a leaping 14-yard touchdown catch at the 9:32 mark of the second quarter, then had a 25-yard TD completion to Marques Colston to send the Saints into halftime trailing only 17-14.

Any momentum New Orleans gained was hurt when Colin Jones forced return man Sproles to fumble after the 49ers punted on their first possession of the second half. That set up Akers' second field goal of the day.

Game notes

Brees finished the regular season and playoffs with 6,404 yards passing, surpassing Marino's 6,085 on the way to the Super Bowl in the 1984 season. ... 49ers WR Ted Ginn Jr., nursing a tender left ankle, left for the locker room before halftime and didn't return. He missed one series in the third quarter before returning a punt and rejoining the offense only to get injured again, leaving late in the third with a right knee injury.

Information from The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Copyright by STATS LLC and The Associated Press


Team Stat Comparison

1st Downs2617
Passing 1st downs
Rushing 1st downs
1st downs from penalties
3rd down efficiency
4th down efficiency
Total Plays8068
Total Yards472407
Yards per play5.96.0
Total Drives1516
Yards per pass
Interceptions thrown
Sacks-Yards Lost
Rushing Attempts
Yards per rush
Red Zone (Made-Att)2-33-5
Fumbles lost
Interceptions thrown
Defensive / Special Teams TDs00

Passing Leaders


Rushing Leaders


Receiving Leaders


Scoring Summary

sfTD2:17Vernon Davis 49 Yard Pass From Alex Smith (David Akers Kick is Good)
Drive info: 2 plays, 54 yds, 0:46
sfTD0:44Michael Crabtree 4 Yard Pass From Alex Smith (David Akers Kick is Good)
Drive info: 3 plays, 4 yds, 0:15
sfFG14:17David Akers 25 Yard Field Goal is Good
Drive info: 4 plays, 6 yds, 1:23
noTD9:37Jimmy Graham 14 Yard Pass From Drew Brees (John Kasay Kick is Good)
Drive info: 9 plays, 80 yds, 4:40
noTD4:16Marques Colston 25 Yard Pass From Drew Brees (John Kasay Kick is Good)
Drive info: 7 plays, 66 yds, 3:04
sfFG10:39David Akers 41 Yard Field Goal is Good
Drive info: 4 plays, 3 yds, 0:59
noFG13:13John Kasay 48 Yard Field Goal is Good
Drive info: 9 plays, 37 yds, 3:26
sfFG7:40David Akers 37 Yard Field Goal is Good
Drive info: 5 plays, 45 yds, 3:02
noTD4:11Darren Sproles 44 Yard Pass From Drew Brees (John Kasay Kick is Good)
Drive info: 9 plays, 79 yds, 3:34
sfTD2:18Alex Smith 28 Yard Run (Frank Gore Run For Two-Point Conversion is No Good)
Drive info: 6 plays, 80 yds, 1:51
noTD1:48Jimmy Graham 66 Yard Pass From Drew Brees (Drew Brees Pass to Darren Sproles For Two-Point Conversion is Good)
Drive info: 4 plays, 88 yds, 0:34
sfTD0:14Vernon Davis 14 Yard Pass From Alex Smith (David Akers Kick is Good)
Drive info: 7 plays, 85 yds, 1:28

Research Notes

**On Saturday, Drew Brees attempted a season-high 63 passes. As you can see below, that is decidedly not the formula that made the Saints successful this season.** Drew Brees 2011 Season 43 or Fewer Attempts 44 or More<< Team W-L 10-0 4-4 Comp pct 73.3 68.5 TD-Int 36-4 17-12 Total QBR 92.0 73.3 >>11-26 in career when attempting 44+ passes (includes playoffs)
Alex Smith threw 42 passes in the win over the Saints -- it's the 1st time in his career that his team has won a game when he threw 42+ passes.
Through the first three quarters Saturday, the Saints sent four or fewer pass rushers on only nine of Alex Smith's 33 dropbacks (27.3 percent), and Smith was not effective throwing into coverage. In the fourth quarter, the Saints sent four or fewer rushers after Smith almost twice as often, but Smith was much better. Smith completed all six of his attempts against four or fewer rushers, including his game-winning touchdown pass to Vernon Davis.
Drew Brees was sacked three times in Saturday's loss and was put under duress an additional 17 times. Brees was 5 of 16 (31.3 percent) passing when under duress (forced to move or alter throw due to pressure) after posting the second-best completion percentage (53.3 percent) in the regular season. Brees also had five thrown away passes in the game after throwing eight passes away in his first 17 games.
Alex Smith was excellent throwing over the middle of the field on Saturday. This season, Smith averaged a touchdown once every 24.6 attempts inside the numbers. Saturday against the Saints, Smith averaged a touchdown every 7.3 attempts inside the numbers, including his game-winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis.
NEXT LEVEL: Darren Sproles reeled in a postseason-record 15 receptions and a touchdown Sunday including 10 catches against the 49ers' nickel defense. Sproles led all running backs in targets (95), receptions (75), and touchdowns (4) when opponents had five or more DBs on the field during the regular season.
Drew Brees threw two touchdowns on passes more than 20 air yards downfield Saturday, but they were his only completions on eight such attempts. Brees also threw two interceptions more than 20 air yards downfield, his first multi-interception game on such throws since Week 7 of 2009.
NEXT LEVEL: On 3rd and 7 with 2:11 remaining, Alex Smith scored a go-ahead touchdown on a designed run from the Saints' 28-yard line. Quarterbacks attempted a designed run on 3rd and 7 or more only 2.4 percent of the time during the regular season and only once on those 81 carries did a quarterback score a rushing touchdown on the play (Chad Henne; Wk 1 vs Patriots).
Alex Smith was 5 of 5 for 167 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winner, when targeting Vernon Davis 11 yards or more downfield. Davis hadn't caught five such throws in a game over the past four seasons and had only one multi-touchdown game.
Alex Smith's 28-yard TD run was the longest 4th-quarter or OT go-ahead TD run in a playoff game by a QB since Ken Stabler's 30-yarder in the 1972 Divisional Round... That score gave the Raiders the lead in a game they would end up losing to the Steelers on the Immaculate Reception.
Darren Sproles: loses fumble on punt return. It's the Saints 5th turnover of the game, which is 1 shy of the most by the Saints in a postseason game. They had 6 in their 1st postseason game in franchise history during the 1987 Wild Card playoff against the Vikings
From Elias: The Saints are just the 5th team in the Super Bowl era (since 1966) to have 3 turnovers in the 1st quarter of a postseason game. None of the previous 4 teams to do so won their game.

ESPN Stats & Information