SAN FRANCISCO What a way to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of The Catch.
Then: Joe Montana to Dwight Clark.
Now: Alex Smith to Vernon Davis.
Smith completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis with 9 seconds left just after Drew Brees had put the high-powered Saints ahead, and resurgent San Francisco capitalized on five New Orleans turnovers for a thrilling 36-32 playoff victory Saturday.
This is huge for us, Davis said. Its history, legendary, anything you can describe.
Smith ran for a 28-yard touchdown with 2:11 left and threw another scoring pass to Davis in the first quarter.
Coach Jim Harbaughs NFC West champions (14-3) proved a hard-hitting, stingy defense still can win in the modern, wide-open NFL by holding off one of the leagues most dynamic offenses.
Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left, and the Saints seemed poised to rally from an early 17-point deficit when Smith and Davis delivered once more. It was a wild back-and-forth finish featuring an impressive passing duel over the waning moments.
Their highlight show came in the opposite end zone from where Clark caught a stretched-out 6-yard pass from Montana on Jan. 10, 1982. Saturdays game-winner by a leaping Davis who plowed over a defender as he landed came in the same end zone where Steve Young hit Terrell Owens for a winning touchdown with 3 seconds left in a 30-27 wild-card win over the Packers in the 1999 playoffs. T.O.s grab became known as The Catch II.
How about this one?
Youve got to call it the grab, Davis said of his play. We were down. I had to make it happen to take my teammates where we want to go.
San Francisco triumphed in its first playoff game in nine years and will move on to face the New York Giants or defending champion Green Bay Packers, who play today. A win by the Giants would give the 49ers the home field.
The 49ers pulled off another last-second win in a season full of them and on a day former coach George Seifert served as honorary captain for the coin toss. San Francisco came from behind for five victories during the regular season, four on the road.
Davis, who wept on the sideline afterward days after saying he was overwhelmed early by Harbaughs thick playbook, finished with seven catches for 180 yards. It was the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game. He averaged 25.7 yards per catch.
Brees came up big down the stretch just as he did throughout a record-setting season, also hitting Darren Sproles for a 44-yard touchdown with 4:02 remaining one of Sproles 15 catches for 119 yards.
It stings right now because of the expectation level that we had coming into this tournament and understanding that if we win here were into the NFC championship game, and anything can happen, Brees said. Thats tough. Tough to swallow at this point.
The 49ers also showed that defense still can dominate in the days of big passers like Brees.
With Donte Whitner bringing the bruising hits and Dashon Goldson, Patrick Willis and their defensive mates pressuring Brees and forcing turnovers from every angle, surprising San Francisco is a win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since capturing the proud franchises fifth championship after the 1994 season.
Brees, whose team was coming off consecutive 600-yard games, completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns and was sacked three times. He also threw two interceptions, his first in the postseason in five years, and New Orleans (14-4) fell short again in its quest to get back to the Super Bowl after winning it all two years ago.
The Saints still are searching for their first postseason road victory in franchise history after falling to 0-5.
Kind of an unbelievable game the way it went back and forth, New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. Its obviously a difficult game to lose.
Harbaughs Whos got it better than us? No-body! group is drawing comparisons to the good ole days of Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young. And of course, Clark, who came through with The Catch to beat Dallas in the NFC title game Jan. 10, 1982.
All-Pro kicker David Akers, the Niners most experienced playoff veteran whose 44 field goals set a single-season record, kicked three more when it mattered most from 25, 41 and 37 yards.
The underdog 49ers made the big plays on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
Guys were so confident, as long as we had time, we had a shot, Smith said.
They also had a towel-waving sellout crowd of 69,732 behind them at Candlestick Park on a beautiful sunny winter day in the Bay Area. It was 62 degrees at kickoff.
Its the Saints headed home to the Big Easy empty-handed.