The 49ers jumped out to a 17-0 lead on the strength of 4 forced turnovers in the first half. The Saints rallied to close to 17-14 by halftime. Going into the fourth quarter, the 49ers lead 20-14. The Saints hit a field goal. The 49ers hit a field goal. At 23-17, it was exciting, but nothing special. Ah, but the last 4:11 was something beyond special.
The Saints scored on a quick strike pass to Darren Sproles to take their first lead of the game, 24-23, with 4:11 left on the clock.
Now, you gotta understand what goes through the mind of a fan who's lived through the torture of 8 straight losing seasons. Not just losing seasons, but seasons ranging from putrid to merely mediocre...but mostly putrid. I'd seen this movie about a half dozen times over the previous 8 years. Niners exceed expectations, jump to a big lead....and then managed to lose -- sometimes badly. This seemed oh so much like deja vu.
Ah, but the script changed. The Niners marched down the field, getting a big play in the process on an Alex Smith to Vernon Davis pass for 37 yards. It wasn't the first the two had during the game. It wouldn't be the last.
With 2:18 remaining in the game, on third and eight from the Saints 28 yard line, the Niners pulled a complete surprise out of the back of the play book. Alex Smith took the snap from shotgun formation, then sprinted left. A seal block by diminutive wide receiver Kyle Williams on 280-lb defensive end Will Smith made the first down certain. But it was sprinting left tackle Joe Staley, who laid out a Saints safety at the 5 yard line, who assured the score. A two-point conversion attempt failed, but no matter; the 49ers had retaken the lead, and their top-notch defense was going to seal the victory. I was sure of it.
Uh, yeah.......about that.
Drew Brees is one of the most amazing quarterbacks I've ever seen. He's a first-ballot Hall of Famer, for sure. A 5 point deficit with just over 2 minutes to play is nothing to him. He connected with all-world tight end Jim Graham for a 66-yard lightning bolt, and I was right back to those deja vu feelings all over again.
Now the shit was real. A poor kickoff return left the Niners stuck on their own 15 yard line. Only 1:37 left. I might have been optimistic had the QB been named Montana or Young. But, as much as I like and admire Alex Smith, he's no Montana, no Young. Or, at least he wasn't prior to this game. It was time for Alex to step up and play like the former greats.
It seemed so obvious at the start of the drive; get down the field, kick a tying field goal, hope for the best in OT. The 49ers had other plans.
On the second play of the drive the 49ers surprised the Saints with a deep crossing pattern to Vernon Davis that went for 47 yards down to the Saints 20. I started to believe again - we were going to get that tie, and we were going to overtime. Two plays later, the 49ers showed me and the world that OT wasn't in the plan. Alex Smith hit Vernon Davis on a skinny post for the game winning touchdown with a slim 9 seconds left in the game. A squib kick, a gimmicky desperation play by the Saints, and it was a final. The 49ers were headed to the NFC Championship Game, the team's first since 1997.
This team has brought me more sports-fan happiness than any team since the '94 champions. More than the '89 monster team that outscored the competition by 100 points in three playoff games. More than the '88 team that beat Cincy with 34 seconds left in SB XXIII. More than the 18-1 '84 champions. Even more than the '81 team, the first SB championship team, and the team that most reminds me of the '11 group.
No matter what happens Sunday in the Championship game I am thrilled with what has happened this season. But I don't think they're done.
Can this team win the Super Bowl? I wouldn't bet against it.