To win their divisional playoff matchup with the New Orleans Saints, most analysts said the San Francisco 49ers would have to turn the game into a defensive-minded slugfest.
But in the fourth quarter at Candlestick Park Saturday night, the 49ers beat the Saints at their own game, scoring a last-minute touchdown to propel them to an incredible 36-32 victory over the Saints.
The Saints turned the ball over five times to San Franciscoâ€™s one, allowing the 49ers to lead until the fourth quarter despite being outgained 468 to 407.
Drew Brees started slowly but caught fire late, completing 40 passes on 63 attempts for 458 yards and four touchdowns. Brees threw two first half interceptions, his first in the playoffs since the 2006 NFC Championship against the Bears.
But Alex Smith put together a career performance, completing 24 of 42 passes for 299 yards and three touchdowns. Smith also rushed for one touchdown that gave the 49ers a late lead.
Vernon Davis led all receivers with 180 yards on seven receptions. He also had two touchdown receptions, including the game-clinching catch with seconds left on the clock.
Three Saints receivers went over 100 yards in the game. Marques Colston had nine receptions for 136 yards and a touchdown, Darren Sproles had a playoff-record 15 catches for 116 yards with a touchdown, and Jimmy Graham had five receptions for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
Frank Gore led the 49ers with 89 yards on 13 carries, while his team averaged 6.5 yards per carry on the ground. The Saintsâ€™ prolific aerial production came in a game where they managed only 37 yards on 14 carries.
The Saints offense dinked and dunked their way down the field on their opening drive, but a Pierre Thomas fumble thanks to legal helmet-to-helmet contact gave the 49ers the ball. The team switched possessions, after which the 49ers put the first points of the game on the board thanks to a 49 yard touchdown pass from Smith to Vernon Davis.
On the ensuing Saintsâ€™ drive, Brees tossed an interception to Dashon Goldson around midfield. Goldson returned the ball inside the Saintsâ€™ five yard line. Shortly thereafter, Smith threw another touchdown pass, this one a four-yarder to Michael Crabtree.
Courtney Roby fumbled the following kickoff, and San Francisco recovered on the Saints 13. The Black and Gold defense was able to hold the 49ers to three, forcing a 25-yard David Akers attempt that sailed through the uprights.
But the Saints wouldnâ€™t stay down for long. Brees matriculated the ball down field, completing all seven of his passes on the drive including the final one, a 14-yard touchdown pass to Graham.
A 49ers three-and-out gave the Saints possession again, and Brees continued to thread the needle, adding only a throwaway and a drop to his incompletions. On 3rd and 3, Brees went deep to Colston, who caught the ball in tight coverage for a 25-yard touchdown.
A third down sack of Smith gave the Saints another opportunity to tie the game before the half, but Brees threw a downfield interception to a leaping Tarell Brown, who fell at the San Francisco 29.
The 49ers managed to move the ball near midfield, but were forced to punt. The Saints soon did the same, giving the 49ers less than minute to get into field goal range, but Smith fumbled around midfield, giving the Saints the ball with 17 seconds left. Three straight incompletions by Brees ended the half.
The Saints got a stop to start the second half, but Sproles fumbled the punt return, accounting for the Saints fifth turnover of the game. The 49ers recovered at the Saints 27, but gained only three yards and settled for an Akers 41-yarder to extend their lead to six.
Most of the third quarter was a defensive battle, with the teams playing the field position game while punting back and forth. The Saints opened fourth quarter scoring with a 48-yard John Kasay field goal to narrow the gap to three with just under 14 minutes left in the game.
The Saints offense couldnâ€™t get it going thereafter though, and a punt led to a long run by Frank Gore. The 49ers offense went no further, though, and a subsequent 37-yard field goal by Akers to give the 49ers a six point lead.
But the Saints offense caught fire. Brees led them past midfield, and then connected with Sproles on a 44-yard touchdown pass. After the extra point, the Saints took their first lead of the game with slightly over four minutes left in the game.
But the 49ers made their way into field goal range quickly, and on 3rd and 7, Alex Smith kept the ball and scrambled 27 yards down the sideline to give the 49ers the lead back. However, the Saints stuffed a draw play on the two point conversion attempt.
But Brees had one trick left up his sleeve. A short return by Sproles gave the Saints possession at their own 12, but a few quick first downs set the Saints up at their 34. Brees then rocketed a pass downfield to Graham, who caught it and rambled the rest of the way to the endzone to give the Saints the lead. Brees completed the two point conversion attempt to Sproles in the endzone to give the Saints a three point lead.
But Smith had an answer. A long completion to Davis put San Francisco in field goal range, but the 49ers werenâ€™t satisfied with tying the game. Smith completed the pass of his career, a 14-yard touchdown to Davis with nine seconds remaining in the game.
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