What it means: The 49ers are headed to the NFC title game against the winner of the New York Giants-Green Bay Packers game Sunday. They will play at home if the Giants win. They will visit Green Bay if the Packers win. Alex Smith and Vernon Davis showed their playoff mettle in leading the 49ers back from fourth-quarter deficits not once, but twice. This will go down as one of the great games in 49ers history and in NFL postseason history.
What I liked: Smith's winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis showed the 49ers were playing to win, not for overtime. On the 49ers' previous drive, Smith's 37-yard strike to Davis up the left sideline and 28-yard touchdown run on a beautifully executed keeper put the 49ers ahead with 2:11 remaining. The 49ers played the game on their terms early, delivering punishing hits while hawking the ball. They forced three first-quarter turnovers and built a 17-3 lead. Dashon Goldson outfoxed Drew Brees to pick off one pass. Tarell Brown made an athletic play for another interception. Smith capitalized on the turnovers, finding Davis for a 49-yard touchdown and Michael Crabtree for a 4-yarder that showed San Francisco has indeed made progress in the red zone recently. Donte Whitner in particular roughed up the Saints, knocking out running back Pierre Thomas with a concussion and pounding tight end Jimmy Graham. The defense held firm after the 49ers suffered their first turnover in six games, right before halftime.
What I didn't like: The 49ers' defense, ranked fourth overall in yards allowed per game during the regular season, gave up go-ahead pass plays covering 44 and 66 yards in the final five minutes. The 49ers forced four first-half turnovers and still led by only three. Smith paid for the aggressive offensive plan, taking third-down sacks, including one that led to the 49ers' first turnover since a Week 12 game at Baltimore. Crabtree, after making his scoring grab, had trouble holding onto the ball on contested throws. The 49ers needed him to win those battles. Goldson went for the big hit on Marques Colston, but Brees led Colston away from trouble, producing a 31-yard gain when the 49ers led by only six points in the third quarter. Frank Gore had seven drops during the season and had a hard time throwing in this game, sending one back to Smith on a hop to sap the potential from a trick play. The 49ers' defense cracked with the game on the line, allowing Darren Sproles' go-ahead 44-yard touchdown reception.
Play calling raised eyebrows: The 49ers' aggressiveness on offense led them away from the ground game. The early passing helped the 49ers take a 14-0 lead with scoring passes to Davis and Crabtree. Pass plays continued outnumbering runs as the game progressed, however, and the 49ers did not get into a rhythm on the ground. The 49ers had 29 pass attempts and 15 rushes through three quarters. They also had taken four sacks to that point, widening the disparity. The strategy was easy to question because the 49ers' wide receivers were not playing at a high level.
Defensive player of the year: It would be tough to argue against the 49ers' Justin Smith, the team's most consistent and consistently dominant player. Smith's brute power won out when he sacked Brees on third down when the 49ers absolutely needed a stop in the third quarter. Later, with 49ers up only three, Smith drove Pro Bowl left tackle Jermon Bushrod into Brees for a sack. These were Reggie White-type plays at critical moments.
Injury notes: The 49ers got receiver Ted Ginn Jr. back from injury, but Ginn spent as much time on the exercise bike as on the field, it seemed. His knee was a problem. Ginn had trouble getting much traction in the return game and was called for pass interference late in the third quarter. Officials flagged receiver Kyle Williams for offensive interference on the next play. Both calls appeared straightforward. The Saints declined both.
What's next: The NFC title game.