SAN FRANCISCO -- He could have left town and never looked back last offseason, but Alex Smith stayed home and stayed with it. He resolved to remain a 49er, and give it one last shot.
And now comebacks are all the rage in San Francisco: Smith's story of personal vindication, his team's re-born homefield advantage, and most importantly, the postseason relevancy of the San Francisco 49ers.
Moments after the franchise's biggest win in nine long years -- Saturday's thrilling 36-32 conquest of the favored New Orleans Saints at Candlestick Park -- no one deserved the victory lap that came with the NFC Divisional playoff upset more than Smith, the 2005 first overall pick who had endured six seasons of famine in San Francisco in order to be in position for this year's football feast.
When his career-defining moment finally arrived, Smith was ready for it. He not once, but twice rallied the 49ers to go-ahead touchdowns in the final 2:11, first running in a 28-yard bootleg score and then saving San Francisco one last time with his 14-yard game-winning laser to tight end Vernon Davis at the goal line, just nine seconds shy of the final gun.
Winning quarterbacks are glorified in San Francisco like few other places, and Smith now finally has a taste of what that feels like. After sticking it out through years of defeat, ridicule and chaos with the 49ers, Smith is a loser no more. He and his upstart 49ers teammates will play somewhere next Sunday for the NFC Championship -- maybe even at home if the New York Giants upset top-seeded Green Bay in Sunday's second NFC Divisional round game -- and the story of how they got there starts with Smith's resilience.
"I think it's fitting after all the stuff he's been through,'' said 49ers left offensive tackle Joe Staley, of his quarterback's long and winding road to glory. "With the year he's having, and everyone talking about we're a run-only team, and him still not getting the praise he deserves. And then to see him go toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints and win the game at the end, I think it's very, very fitting, and I think it's awesome. I'm very proud of him.''
As rich and storied as the 49ers' playoff legacy is, this fantastic finish won't take a backseat to any in San Francisco postseason history. It was a battle the 49ers won, lost, won, lost and won yet again, as the teams combined to score four touchdowns (two each) in the final 4:02, trading punches like exhausted heavyweight fighters who were hanging on, trying to make the final bell.
It was a remarkable performance for Smith and the 49ers, made even more noteworthy by the fact San Francisco was making its first playoff appearance since 2002, with the Saints holding a huge advantage in terms of postseason experience. But the second-seeded 49ers never looked the novices on this day, consistently forcing the action against No. 3-seeded New Orleans (14-4), and leading for the vast majority of the game.
"Live or die, and we live,'' said San Francisco rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh after leaving a euphoric 49ers locker room. "We move on and we move on in spectacular fashion. I'm very proud of our football team. I know there was "The Catch.'' I don't know what you're going call this -- "The Throw.'' "The Throw and Catch." It was a great play by Vernon Davis and Alex Smith.''
Smith's and Davis' game-winner doesn't have a nickname yet like Dwight Clark's famous game-deciding touchdown reception on this same field in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, the win that truly launched the 49ers dynasty, but it may not need one to take its place in franchise lore. The drama-filled rollercoaster ride the Saints and 49ers put everyone through in the game's final minutes was as good as playoff football gets in the NFL.
"That was special,'' Harbaugh said. "I can't remember winning a game in this spectacular of fashion. Right now it feels like the best (win of my career).
"We knew they were going to make plays, we knew we were going to make plays, and we thought we'd make more plays. And it ended up us making two or three more than they did. This was an all-day sucker, and we prevailed.''
Not many observers gave either the 49ers or Smith much of a chance to prevail in this one, with New Orleans coming in as the hottest and most productive team in football, with a nine-game winning streak that was tied for the league's best with New England. The Saints had scored 42 or more points in their past four games, averaged more than 34 points per game in the regular season, and featured the record-setting Brees at quarterback, whose 2011 highlight was obliterating Dan Marino's 1984 NFL record for single-season passing yardage.
The 49ers entered Saturday as a real rarity, a home underdog in the divisional round. The last time the oddsmakers favored the road team in that round was 15 years ago, when expansion Carolina was an underdog to visiting Dallas in 1996. The Panthers won that game, and the 49ers followed suit, improving to 8-1 this season at Candlestick, and serving notice that they have enough mojo going for them to beat anyone in the NFC playoff field.
Staley said San Francisco's return to postseason glory was inspired on some level by the 49ers watching a video highlight compiliation of some of the greatest moments in NFL playoff history in a Friday night team meeting. For a club almost devoid of players who have been on this stage, the highlight reel seemed to open the 49ers' minds to the possibilities that Saturday's game presented. Win it, and they'd be a part of San Francisco's legacy forever.
"At the end of the video, it said history is made in the playoffs,'' Staley said. "And I felt like tonight was one of those ESPN Classic games. We all understood the situation. It was a playoff atmosphere. And all the big games you remember as a kid growing up happened in the playoffs. This is one of those games we'll remember for a long, long time.''
Smith certainly turned in the game of his life. He outdueled the great Brees, finishing 24 of 42 for 299 yards, with three touchdowns, his go-ahead late-game rushing score, and a 103.2 passer rating. Brees was heroic himself, leading two long touchdown drives to get the Saints back in the game in the second quarter, and then putting 18 points on the board in the fourth quarter, giving New Orleans the lead for the first time all day with just 4:02 remaining.
But Brees threw a couple costly interceptions in the first half to go with his four overall touchdown passes, finishing with 462 yards passing and a 93.5 passer rating. With Saints running back Pierre Thomas knocked out of the game with a likely concussion on New Orleans' first drive, Brees filled the skies with footballs the rest of the way, winding up 40 of 63 in passing, with three sacks taken. But five Saints turnovers helped San Franciso build an early lead (it was 17-0 early in the second quarter), and New Orleans wound up expending great amounts of energy in battling its way back into the game.
As opposed to Brees and the Saints, whose five turnovers were more than one-fourth of their regular-season total of 19, Smith and the 49ers took superb care of the football, with Smith's fumble just before the half being San Francisco's only turnover in the game, and the team's first since Week 12. Derided at times this season for being a "game manager'' type of quarterback, Smith stepped up and proved he can carry a team to victory, even when the pressure is the greatest.
"It's about as good as it gets,'' said Smith, wearing the short-sleeve, blue work-man shirt that he and some other 49ers players have sported at times this season to remind themselves to take a blue-collar approach to the game. "There were so many ups and downs in this game, and the last five minutes were dramatic enough.''
The 49ers were already well within David Akers' range for a game-tying and overtime-inducing field goal with 14 seconds left on the clock, but San Francisco disdained the safe option and had Smith take a shot to Davis in the end zone, running a play they only installed this week.
"We wanted to take a shot there at the end zone, even though we knew if it wasn't there, I had to throw it away and not risk the interception,'' Smith said. "I got the window, and I cut it loose. And Vernon made a great catch.''
Davis, another former first-round pick of the 49ers, was right there with Smith when it comes to enduring some tough early career setbacks, and perservering. So it's just as fitting that Smith and he teamed up for the game's biggest play, as part of his monster seven-catch, 180-yard, two-touchdown afternoon.
"History, history was going through my mind,'' said Davis, when asked about the raw emotions he showed after his game-winner, when he ran into Harbaugh's arms. "It was us against history. I said to myself, 'It's us against no, and us against can't.' All those things. We managed to pull it off. It was a very emotional game.''
Thanks to Smith and Davis, the 49ers are once again a force in the NFL playoffs, and they get to play another big-stage game next week, either at home against the Giants or at Green Bay. The 49ers are making history in January once more.
"It's so special that those guys, Alex and Vernon, who have been here forever and have had some tough years, came out here and played the best game I've ever seen them play,'' Staley said. "They're a big part of the reason why we won this game.''