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The word "unbelievable" is probably overused in sports, but this is exactly what this moment was, through and through.
January 14, 2012. The 49ers were in the playoffs for the first time since 2002, hosting a divisional round game for first time in 15 years. Under the new direction of first-year coach Jim Harbaugh, San Francisco was eerily good again, sneaking up on teams and playing a clean, opportunistic brand of football.
The most impressive truth in all of this is that Harbaugh was doing this with most of the same cast that had finished 6-10 the year before.
2005 first overall pick Alex Smith, “the bust,” was in the playoffs? Nobody wanted to believe, nor could they believe, that Smith was becoming a winning quarterback. But everyone was fine with it because he was sure to lose against quarterback Drew Brees and the high-flying New Orleans Saints.
Vegas listed the 49ers as three-point underdogs at their own house.
“Smith can’t win in a shootout, he’s a game manager,” pundits would shout. Well, in a game where 68 points were scored, Smith did keep pace.
Offensively, the Saints pushed Smith to his limits, making him do what the football world thought was impossible.
With the stadium painted red, the 49ers hit the Saints hard early on, running up a surprising 17-0 lead.
Defensive tackle Justin Smith and the defense were hitting Brees relentlessly. They were forcing turnovers, playing balanced football on offense and winning the field position game. But sure enough, the Saints came roaring back, trailing just 17-14 at half. The back-and-forth action in the second half resulted in one of the most entertaining finishes in NFL postseason history.
Darren Sproles' 44-yard catch and run score gave the Saints their first lead in the fourth quarter. But Alex Smith answered with an incredible 28-yard scramble for a score that gave the 49ers a 29-24 advantage. The Saints put themselves back on top, 32-29, with less than two minutes left in the game thanks to a 66-yard bomb from Brees to tight end Jimmy Graham.
After allowing scoring plays of 44 and 66 yards, the 49ers needed this offense to respond again.
It couldn’t possibly happen.
With dump-offs to running back Frank Gore and a big catch-and-run by San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, who was having a coming-of-age game in his own right, the 49ers were able to march down the field and put themselves in scoring range.
They could’ve settled for a field goal but did they really want to give Brees the ball back?
No. San Francisco was going for the end zone and it had just the call.
Originally designed by 49ers quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, the “Vernon Post” was a play designed to beat Cover 2, which was what New Orleans had been leaning on during that drive. Saints defensive coordinator Gregg Williams did not stop bringing heat and was comfortable with his two safeties.
The table was set for what offensive coordinator Greg Roman called a “bang-bang play,” via Daniel Brown of the San Jose Mercury News.
Smith to his favorite target, Davis, against the best look they could’ve asked for. The two top picks from 2005 and 2006, paired to salvage this team right away, coming through years later? How serendipitous. You couldn’t write a better story.
As 49ers.com's Taylor Price noted, the 49ers went nuts after the go-ahead touchdown.
Looking at the big picture, this means more far more than the Catch II or the comeback because the 49ers had been stuck in a rut, suffering seven losing seasons in eight years. This closer resembled the birth of the dynasty in 1981, rather than any of those other moments.
The connection of Alex Smith, labeled a bust, to Vernon Davis, who hadn’t lived up to the hype outside of his 13-touchdown season in 2009, made this moment. It also officially dawned a new era in 49ers football.