Smith, Davis deliver 49ers' epic redemption

Vernon Davis, in his sixth year with the 49ers, led his team to a win against New Orleans Saturday. Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

SAN FRANCISCO -- There could be no other way for the San Francisco 49ers.

Alex Smith and Vernon Davis, once the weary symbols for a proud franchise in tatters, had to be the ones delivering San Francisco to its epic 36-32 victory Saturday.

This was how the 49ers would atone for a lost decade -- Smith to Davis at Candlestick Park, the Niners advancing to the NFC Championship Game in Jim Harbaugh's magical first season as coach.

"The Catch" has company in 49ers lore.

Davis, having spent more time in his playbook than his thesaurus lately, proposed "The Grab" to describe the 14-yard touchdown pass he caught from Smith to shock New Orleans and all the doubters in a red sea of delirious 49ers fans.

That was the only time Davis, he of seven receptions for 180 yards and two scores, came up short all afternoon.

A quarter-century after John Elway authored "The Drive" for Denver, Smith and Davis did the Broncos one better, albeit without a Super Bowl berth on the line quite yet.

"The Drives" -- plural -- vanquished Drew Brees and the most prolific offense in NFL history. A 49ers team with five fourth-quarter comeback victories during the regular season needed Smith to outduel Brees not once, but twice in the final three minutes.

"It might be time to give Alex some credit, huh?" Harbaugh said.

Smith passed for three touchdowns, ran 28 yards for another and suffered no interceptions in the biggest game of his life. Brees was often brilliant, especially in the clutch, but he threw two picks and joined a growing list of elite quarterbacks coming up short against the 49ers.

Down 24-23 with 4:02 left, Smith beat the Saints' blitz with a 37-yard sideline strike to Davis -- a big-time throw befitting his status as a No. 1 overall draft choice. Then came the 28-yard touchdown run on a quarterback keeper, left tackle Joe Staley leading and leveling Saints safety Isa Abdul-Quddus.

"I've never felt so drained after a football game, and I consider myself to be a very in-shape lineman," Staley said.

Brees' immediate answer, a 66-yard scoring strike to Jimmy Graham, would have finished a team with a second-rate quarterback. It would have finished the 49ers in any of the previous eight or nine seasons. All Smith did was complete five of six passes in the final 1:32, including a 47-yarder to Davis and the 14-yard winner.

Time to reassess.

"He beat Ben Roethlisberger on 'Monday Night Football,' he beat Eli Manning in a big game, he beat Drew Brees, he beat Matthew Stafford," safety Donte Whitner said. "I think it's time to start mentioning him as a good quarterback in the National Football League."

The 49ers should not have needed validation for their 13-3 season, but a one-and-done showing against a team with an MVP-caliber quarterback would have strengthened familiar narratives about postseason football in the passing age.

The fact is, the 49ers put the game in Smith's hands to a degree that didn't always seem wise, but the confidence they showed in him became self-fulfilling -- as it was all season.

"We had a lot of confidence in Alex," Staley said. "You saw what he could do today against a great team. He came up huge. Played an amazing game."

The process began a year ago when Harbaugh reached out to Smith and even played catch with him, doing all he could to salvage a player-team relationship both sides previously thought was finally nearing an end. Smith's interest in returning despite all that had come before showed the mettle Harbaugh demanded from the position. Momentum built as Harbaugh heaped praise upon Smith all offseason, installed him as the starter and backed him even when the offense failed to exceed 226 yards in any of its first three games.

Later, with Smith putting up efficient passing stats but hardly carrying the offense, Harbaugh pushed him for the Pro Bowl — up there with Aaron Rodgers and Brees among the elites.

The 49ers called more than twice as many pass plays as runs against New Orleans. Instead of running out the clock before halftime, they pushed for more points and paid with their first turnover since Week 12, a Smith fumble when the Saints sacked him. Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman obviously didn't buy the thinking that San Francisco would have to rush for 200 yards, keeping Brees off the field to better their chances.

"We were taking some shots all game long," Harbaugh said. "I thought Alex played extremely bold."

The Saints did what they do: blitz and blitz some more. They backed off some in the fourth quarter, but Smith completed all six of his attempts in the quarter when the Saints sent four or fewer rushers, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The beauty Saturday was that Smith refused to gloat.

"We're still playing — that's what it means, and that feels great," Smith said, again wearing his Harbaugh-issued blue work shirt with the "Alex" patch on the front.

The shirts reflect the blue-collar mentality Harbaugh has sought to instill.

The game programs issued at Candlestick carried the old Bo Schembechler mantra: "The team, the team, the team."

This was a team victory, of course. The 49ers' defense forced three first-quarter turnovers and five overall. Frank Gore's 42-yard rush came when the 49ers needed it badly. Defensive end Justin Smith willed his way to a third-down sack when the game was slipping away from the 49ers' offense. Harbaugh pointed to the kickoff coverage team.

"We are a much more complete team than anybody gives us credit for," Staley said.

And what more could be said about Davis? No player on the 49ers had more growing up to do than the one San Francisco drafted sixth overall in 2006. Davis has gone from out of control to consummate team player and professional. His impassioned halftime speech came after the 49ers led only 17-14 despite forcing four first-half turnovers.

"One shot, that was the message," Davis said. "We only have one shot, and if we don't take advantage of it, we go home. There was a lot of fire in me at that moment. Something just hit me, and I had to let it out."

Davis backed up his talk. He beat safety Roman Harper for a 49-yard touchdown early. He had 47- and 37-yard catches late, a 20-yarder in the second quarter and, of course, the winner. The ever-secretive Harbaugh drew laughs by revealing the play's name to be Vernon Post. Davis, having endured the 49ers' recent past, was more reflective.

"Along the way, there has been a lot of stress, doubt and criticism," Davis said. "Especially for Alex. But when I look at that kid, I look at him as a warrior. You can just imagine a little kid standing there and getting picked on in grade school. Rocks thrown at him, spit on. Alex has been there. I just wish him all the best."

Smith allowed himself a fleeting moment of reflection.

"It's been such a great year, such a great group of guys, coaches and players," he said. "We love coming to work every day. I know I do. We get one more week, at least."