49ers' toughness shines through

SAN FRANCISCO -- There are clearly defined moments in the playoffs for any team that is about to go on a Super Bowl run.

The Green Bay Packers had theirs in Atlanta last season, when they whipped the top-seeded Falcons in a divisional playoff win. The New York Giants had a similar moment four years ago, as they stormed into Green Bay and upset the Packers in the 2007 NFC title game.

Now, after beating New Orleans 36-32 in Saturday's NFC divisional game, the San Francisco 49ers just had theirs.

If there is a tougher team left in the postseason, you'll have a hard time arguing that case after this contest. The 49ers didn't just beat the Saints. They beat them down and then broke their hearts at the end of one of the wildest games in recent postseason history. When the game was over, the Saints had five turnovers, a handful of banged-up players, and a better understanding of how the 49ers earned their 13-3 record and first-round bye.

The 49ers are going to the NFC title game because they grind teams up and rarely wilt in clutch situations. That makes them a tough opponent for any team they face going forward -- and a quickly emerging favorite to win it all.

"We feel like we are the most complete team left in this tournament," running back Frank Gore said. "We can do whatever it takes to win games."

There probably weren't many people outside the Bay Area who were willing to buy into that theory before this game, not when the 49ers had an offense that ranked 26th in the NFL this season. Now it's a much easier sell, especially after the 49ers rallied to win a game that included four lead changes in the final four minutes.

Quarterback Alex Smith had the two biggest highlights of his career during those late moments. The first came on his 28-yard touchdown run to put the 49ers ahead 29-24 with 2:11 left in the game, and the second came on his 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left.

The sight of Davis bursting into tears as he ran to the sideline to hug coach Jim Harbaugh after that play was compelling enough. What was easier to miss was the devastation he'd left in the wake of that reception. Most notable was Saints safety Roman Harper lying on the turf after he'd collided with Davis on the play. He was dazed and defeated, battered and beaten, just one more example of how physical the 49ers had been on this day.

This game might have ended with a flurry, but it started with an undeniable bang. The Saints entered the game with an offense that had scored 40 points six times this season, and two key starters were injured on their first possession. One (Pro Bowl tight end Jimmy Graham) limped off after being wrestled to the ground by safety Donte Whitner on a failed pass play. The other (running back Pierre Thomas) never returned after Whitner smacked him on a screen pass and forced a fumble that linebacker Patrick Willis recovered on the 49ers' 2-yard line.

"That play," Whitner said, "let their offense know we were going to be physical all day."

The Saints had to expect as much coming in. The 49ers had the league's second-best scoring defense and a unit filled with playmakers. What the New Orleans players likely learned Saturday was how the 49ers' toughness isn't defined merely by big hits and bigger plays. It also has something to do with a team that has forged its character through a series of setbacks, a history of dysfunction and a complete grasp of how lousy it feels to be labeled underachievers.

Smith could recite plenty of frustrating moments that occurred in his previous six seasons, back when he was taking constant abuse for not living up to the expectations that came with being the top pick in the 2005 draft. Before Davis developed into a Pro Bowler in recent years, he was better known as the player whose immaturity once led former 49ers coach Mike Singletary to banish him to the locker room during a game. Gore overcame two severe knee injuries in college to find stardom in the NFL. Willis dealt with extreme poverty and an abusive father in his childhood.

These players don't just lead the 49ers. They set the tone for a team that seems to be eerily comfortable when the game is in doubt and support is dwindling. There were so many times in this contest when the 49ers could have stumbled after leading 17-0 early -- particularly when the Saints went ahead on a 44-yard touchdown reception by Darren Sproles with 4:02 left and again on a 66-yard catch-and-run by Graham with 1:37 remaining. Yet the 49ers just strode back onto the field with the mindset that they'd do whatever was necessary to win.

As Davis said of that final minute: "History was on my mind. It was us against history. Us against 'No.' Us against 'Can't.' And we pulled it off."

The 49ers admitted that being home underdogs didn't hurt their motivation. They loved the idea of being overlooked even at this late stage of the season and they understand how their old-school style plays into these opinions. They don't have flashy highlights or gaudy offensive numbers, and shootouts simply aren't their thing. But they also know who they are. That has to count for plenty at this time of year.

In a season in which prolific offenses have reigned supreme, it's been difficult to embrace the 49ers' road to success. It also would be a mistake to continue underestimating them going forward. There are sexier teams left in the playoffs and many with more playoff experience than the 49ers, who hadn't been to the postseason in nine years. But San Francisco has the edge in toughness. In the end, that could be enough to take it past anybody who remains in the way.

Senior writer Jeffri Chadiha covers the NFL for ESPN.com.