When one of the greatest playoff games in NFL history was over last Saturday on a spectacular sun-soaked afternoon in San Francisco, Doug Smith greeted his son Alex in the parking lot with a smile, a hug and a very good question: "Do you [earn] two fourth-quarter comebacks for that?"
Considering everything Smith has been through since being the No. 1 pick out of Utah in 2005—including three coaches, seven offensive coordinators, at least two shoulder surgeries and countless pronouncements that he was at best a game manager and at worst a total bust—the 49ers' quarterback deserved that credit and much more after pulling out a thrilling 36--32 victory over the favored Saints in Candlestick Park. But typical of his style both off the field and in the pocket, the bearded, blue-eyed Californian handled the question with the same cool he showed against New Orleans's blitz packages.
"Yeah, right," Smith said with a chuckle.
Outside the San Francisco locker room and his own family, no one envisioned a scenario in which Smith would go toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and walk away victorious. Brees had just broken Dan Marino's 27-year-old record for passing yards in a season, with 5,476, and set a new mark for completion percentage, at 71.2. He threw 46 touchdown passes, fourth most all time, and directed an offense that had put up at least 42 points in four straight games. In his previous five playoff games, Brees had thrown for 13 scores and no interceptions, and had won a Super Bowl.
Smith, by contrast, was making his first postseason appearance; four months earlier he was booed at Candlestick, where many of the Niners' faithful believed his welcome had worn out years earlier. The Saints, like most opponents, thought so little of Smith's passing that they forced the ball into his hands by loading up against the run. He made them pay early with two first-quarter touchdown passes (the second coming after a Brees interception), but the tenor of the game changed as the Saints battled back. With just over four minutes to play they took their first lead, 24--23, on a 44-yard catch-and-run by Darren Sproles.
A stadium that rocked earlier in the day was suddenly still, as if fans were saying to themselves: Really? Alex Smith is going to rally us?
In fact, Smith rallied the Niners twice, leading consecutive touchdown drives of 80 and 85 yards in less than two minutes each. He capped the first with a 28-yard naked bootleg around left end on third-and-eight, during which he grinned through his face mask well before reaching the end zone. And after Brees took just four plays to go 88 yards and regain the lead, 32--29, on a 66-yard throw to tight end Jimmy Graham, Smith—in front of many of the same fans who once longed for his departure—returned to the huddle at his own 15-yard line with 1:32 left.
He began slowly, with two short passes to running back Frank Gore, then found Vernon Davis for 47 yards. Another short pass to Gore put the ball at the Saints' 20, where Smith spiked it to stop the clock at 0:14. Suddenly, Candlestick swayed again. Three points were all but assured: David Akers kicked a league-record 44 field goals this season, hitting 31 of 32 inside 40 yards.
With a timeout left, the 49ers didn't need to take chances. They could run the ball, send a safe pass into the flat or try a fade into the corner. But when you have a QB whom you trust to win games—not simply manage them—you do what offensive coordinator Greg Roman did and dial up a play that quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst had given him earlier in the week.
A former assistant with the Panthers, Chryst had faced the Saints twice a year in the NFC South for five seasons. One tip he took from those matchups was that safety Roman Harper liked to settle two yards behind the goal line on red zone pass plays. So San Francisco slotted Davis to the left side and had him run vertically before cutting sharply to the middle, in front of Harper. There was nothing safe about the call, because a linebacker could step into the passing lane or Harper could break tendency and sit closer to the goal line. A gnat would have had a hard time fitting through the window, let alone a football.