Smith prior to his team's vanquishing of the Saints.
Wait, quarterback Alex Smith did what?
…and will do so twice?
That’s right—the Niners’ previously maligned, “game-managing” quarterback produced a performance against the Saints in the divisional-round that won the game, not one that merely managed it.
He will replicate those now famous winning tendencies in the NFC Championship game against the New York Giants.
Here’s how it did, and will happen again.
Let’s first take a quick glance at the statistical outputs from Smith vs. Brees.
Smith: 26/42 (61.9%), 299 yards, 7.1 avg, 4 TD (one rushing), 0 INT, 103.2 Rating
Brees: 40/63 (63.5%), 462 yards, 7.3 avg, 4 TD, 2 INT, 93.5 Rating
Now, going down the line, one might deduce that Brees had the stronger game.
Well, that is until one takes into account his two interceptions and a rating below that of Smith’s.
Brees, the man who broke Dan Marino’s all-time single-season record for most passing yards (ended with 5,476) and his own single-season record for completion percentage (ended with 71.2%), did indeed produce two game-winning drives in the fourth quarter.
He also caused an early turnover that ultimately gave the 49ers the point total advantage.
The score at the end of this contest read 36-32 in favor of the 49ers. Remove that Smith touchdown pass (including David Akers’ PAT) after Brees’ interception and it’s an entirely different conclusion—Saints win 32-29.
Moreover, Alex Smith himself orchestrated the much more significant game-winning drives in the final quarter.
His first occurred at 2:11 with an ingenious 28-yard bootleg up the left sideline for the score.
With Candlestick Park erupting in a frenzy and 49ers fans, players and coaches banking on the team’s stout defense, Smith had reason to feel assured with the 29-24 lead. The defense had kept the Saints' offensive monster relatively in check up to this point.
Then the nightmare happened: his team allowed a rare defensive breakdown. Patrick Willis fell down in coverage and Donte Whitner played the ball—not the man—and missed the tackle. Jimmie Graham made a leaping catch and charged to the end zone for the 66-yard score and 32-29 Saints’ advantage (with the two-point conversion).
Could Smith possibly lead another game-winning drive with less than two minutes left on the clock?
The answer, with the benefit of bold foresight and undeniable hindsight, was a resounding yes.
As I stated prior to the game, he would be confident and make it count when it mattered most, more so than Mr. Brees.
His final—and now legendary—14-yard touchdown strike to Vernon Davis on third down with nine seconds to go provided for the superior quarterback rating, eclipsing former Super Bowl champion Drew Brees’ effectiveness on the afternoon.
More importantly, it sealed the victory for the San Francisco 49ers and set up a rematch with the New York Giants for the NFC Championship game.
Poised for a Super Bowl birth.
Again, let’s review their statistical production thus far in the postseason.
Smith (one game): 26/42 (61.9%), 299 yards, 7.1 avg, 4 TD (one rushing), 0 INT, 103.2 Rating
Manning (two games): 44/65 (67.7%), 607 yards, 9.3 avg, 6 TD, 1 INT, 121.8 Rating
The latter has been clearly sensational up to this point in the playoffs.
There is one important blemish, however: the INT.
Manning will be unable to shed his propensity for throwing the interception. He has coughed it up in all four of his postseason appearances, throwing three in 2005, one in 2006 and 2007 and two in 2008.
Against the 49ers in Week 10, he threw two costly picks as well.
Notice the trend?
While Eli has made incredible strides—both since his first playoff game in 2005 and during this season—the INT will inevitably be his downfall.
(For those that cite his 2007 Super Bowl-winning run, I will remind you that he threw a would-be interception perfectly into the hands of the Patriots’ Asante Samuel that would have sealed the game for the Pats. Let’s also give most of the credit to David Tyree for that ridiculous helmet-assisted catch).
The ball hawking, four takeaways-achieving 49ers defense (38 takeaways in the regular season) will capitalize on Manning’s hurtful tendency and snag at least one interception on Sunday.
Let’s now bring Alex Smith back into the picture.
He has been masterful through 17 games, throwing only five interceptions and losing just three fumbles.
In his first NFL postseason game last week against the Saints, he did not throw the ball into the hands of the other team and lost just one fumble. That one turnover proved inconsequential, as his defense stood strong and prevented the Saints from scoring off that takeaway.
He plays in a system that laughs at offensive turnovers. The 49ers led the league with a mere 10 in the regular season and surrendered only one so far in the playoffs.
Smith throws away from his receivers if the opening just isn’t there. As showcased in his epic comeback against the Saints, he nails receivers in stride when the greatest odds stare him down.
Manning, on the other hand, will not be able to overcome his turnover-happy ways. His 20 regular season giveaways—16 INT, four fumbles lost—and one so far in the playoffs will ultimately get the best of him and his teammates.
His seven fourth-quarter comebacks in 2011 will not apply here. Nor will his torching of the opposing secondary against the likes of Atlanta and Green Bay. San Francisco’s defense simply will not allow it.
But it is more than just a suffocating defense.
Smith will cause fewer turnovers than his counterpart as he did in Week 10.
His superior ball security will enable him to generate a game-clinching drive (six in the regular season, two against the Saints)—whether that be a touchdown pass or putting Akers in position for a field goal that overcomes a deficit, breaks a tie or puts the Niners ahead for good—when it matters most.
As in when a birth in Super Bowl XLVI is on the line.
Sorry Eli, you won't have diva-boy Brett Favre handing your team the ball and granting them easy entrance into the Super Bowl this time around.