Davis fully committed to the cause

SAN FRANCISCO -- The road Vernon Davis took to become a playoff hero didn't start with a good week of practice or a strong belief in the offensive strategies of 49ers first-year coach Jim Harbaugh.

It started a few years ago, long before the 49ers tight end caught the game-winning touchdown pass in Saturday's NFC divisional playoff win over New Orleans. Davis was once a predictable character in NFL circles: insanely gifted, totally immature and likely to waste most of his wondrous talents. Today's he's everything the 49ers need and more: grounded and grateful, and fully committed to helping this franchise return to heights that once seemed commonplace.

When Davis faced the media after Saturday's monster game (seven receptions, 180 yards and two touchdowns), he had a vibe to him that suggested a firm grasp of the moment. He'd been crying in Harbaugh's arms after his final 14-yard touchdown catch and he admitted to still being "dizzy" in the aftermath of the 49ers' first playoff game in nine years. Yet Davis surely had to know what that play had done for his career along with his team's fortunes. It had let everybody know he was a man to be taken quite seriously from that day forward.

There are plenty of players who believe their greatness can be judged by Pro Bowl appearances and jaw-dropping statistics. Davis now has reached the point where he can see that elite players in this league do something better than everybody else: They perform when the games matter most.

"To me, when a big-time game is on the line, you have to step up if you're a playmaker," Davis said. "Big-time players make big-time plays, and that's all I could think about. I kept telling myself that over and over and over again. 'Vernon, you have to step up. The team needs you.'"

Davis understood what has been obvious about the 49ers all season. As much as they've leaned on the running game and special teams, they needed to have big plays from their passing game at this time of the year. You don't reach the Super Bowl by going ultra-conservative nor do you do it without your stars producing consistently.

The 49ers couldn't just bang their way to their upcoming NFC title game matchup with the New York Giants. They needed somebody to be their go-to guy in passing situations.

It was easy to forget about how special Davis could be in a season when so many tight ends went off. He didn't have the brutish highlights of New England's Rob Gronkowski, nor were many of his plays as dazzling as those produced by the Saints' young star, Jimmy Graham.

What Davis did have going for him was perspective. Even though he'd had seasons in which he'd generated better numbers than he did in 2011 -- 67 receptions, 792 yards and six touchdowns -- he was blessed to be on a team that could reach the playoffs for the first time in his six-year career.

Davis was once so immature that former 49ers head coach Mike Singletary once banished him to the locker room during a game. His hands used to be unreliable and he too often seemed to have an inflated opinion of himself. The presence of Singletary helped Davis shake many of those bad habits. When Davis made the Pro Bowl in 2009, he also started to understand that being a leader wasn't just about being the person who did the most postgame interviews.

The arrival of Harbaugh has only added to that evolution. The coach has preached "team" from day one and Davis hasn't stopped buying into that concept.

"I'm not worried about the Pro Bowl or individual accolades," Davis said. "I'm here to help this team win, make it to the playoffs, make it to the Super Bowl. That's what it's about. Everyone [was] waiting for me to complain this year about the opportunities but I started telling myself the game is bigger than you. This here [the win over New Orleans] is what matters most."

Davis reinforced that message at halftime of Saturday's game. During a fiery, impromptu speech to his teammates, he talked about having one shot to advance in the postseason and how important it was to take nothing for granted. Davis knew full well that the Saints were prolific enough to not be devastated by a first half that opened with San Francisco leading 17-0. Instead of celebrating what they'd done, Davis wanted his fellow players to double down on their confidence and conviction.

When asked about the message, Davis said, "There was a lot of fire within me at that moment. Something just hit me and I had to let it out. When you are a leader on this team, that is what you're supposed to do -- step up and lead the team."

Davis also backed up his words with his play. He opened the 49ers' scoring with a 49-yard touchdown catch. He also had a 37-yard reception on the late drive that led to a 28-yard, go-ahead touchdown run by quarterback Alex Smith and a 47-yard catch-and-run on the 49ers' final possession.

By the time San Francisco needed another big play with 14 seconds remaining and the ball at the Saints' 14-yard line, it was no surprise that Harbaugh called a play known as "Vernon Post." Smith's throw was perfect but Davis also snared the ball just as Saints safety Roman Harper crashed into him.

In retrospect, it was hard to believe the Saints would give Davis so many opportunities to hurt them. It's as if they either didn't believe the 49ers' passing game could be that dangerous or they'd forgotten about the potential of Davis. Either way, the Giants can't afford to make the same mistakes. Davis isn't just a talented player who blossomed into a star a couple of years ago. These days, the scariest thing about him is that he now knows how to win.

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