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01/15/2012 2:40 AM EST
Stingy 49ers hold down Drew Brees, Saints 36-32
SAN FRANCISCO 36, NEW ORLEANS 32

By JANIE McCAULEY
AP Sports Writer

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) -- In one triumphant afternoon, playoff
first-timer Alex Smith joined a pair of 49ers Hall of Fame
quarterbacks with his own indelible postseason moment.



Joe Montana had "The Catch." Steve Young had "The Catch II."
Now, Smith added another epic play to the 49ers' storied
history: "The Grab."



Smith completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon 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.



"You've 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."



What a way to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of "The Catch."



Montana to Dwight Clark then. Smith to Davis now.



Smith ran for a 28-yard TD with 2:11 left and threw another
scoring pass to Davis in the first quarter. Coach Jim Harbaugh's
NFC West champions (14-3) proved that a hard-hitting, stingy
defense can still win in the modern, wide-open NFL by holding
off one of league's most dynamic offenses.



"This is huge for us," Davis said. "It's history, legendary,
anything you can describe."



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. Saturday's 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 TD 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."



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 Sunday. 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.



Smith helped the Niners become the first team in NFL history to
score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final 3 minutes to win
a playoff game, according to STATS LLC.



Davis, who wept on the sideline afterward days after saying he
was overwhelmed early on by Harbaugh's 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.



Smith found Davis for a 47-yard completion on a cross to the
left sideline with 31 seconds left and Smith then connected with
Frank Gore to put the Niners on the 14 for third down. Davis
produced on a play they call "Vernon Post" - one they worked on
all week, just from the right side instead of the left where it
worked Saturday.



Brees came up big down the stretch just as he did throughout a
record-setting season, also hitting Darren Sproles for a 44-yard
TD 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 we're into the NFC championship game and anything can
happen," Brees said. "That's tough. Tough to swallow at this
point."



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 franchise's 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 are still
searching for the 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. "It's obviously a difficult
game to lose."



How far these 49ers have come since that 24-3 trouncing they
took back in August at the Superdome in the teams' exhibition
opener. Now, Harbaugh's "Who's got it better than us? No-body!"
group is drawing comparisons to the good ol' days of Montana,
Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young. And of course, Dwight
Clark, who came through with "The Catch" to beat Dallas in the
NFC title game on Jan. 10, 1982.



All-Pro 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.



Who Dat? It's the Saints headed home to the Big Easy
empty-handed.



A year ago, New Orleans came out West and suffered a stunning
loss to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC wild-card round.



The Saints had lost five fumbles all season, then gave three
away Saturday against San Francisco's opportunistic defense that
pressured all day.



Harbaugh's theme "don't overcook it," rang true as the 49ers
relied on what got them here - perhaps the league's best defense
and special teams.



Brees drove the Saints close to the goal line on their opening
drive but Pierre Thomas lost that fumble and was lost for the
game to a head injury after being hit by Whitner. Two other
turnovers came on special teams.



Smith, the 2005 No. 1 overall draft pick booed so often his
first six seasons, hit Davis on a 49-yard touchdown pass in the
first quarter and then Michael Crabtree on a 4-yard TD strike as
the 49ers jumped out to a quick 17-0 lead. He finished 24 for 42
for 299 yards with a 103.2 passer rating.



"It shows he's becoming an elite quarterback. I'm glad the world
could see what he did today," Willis said.



Smith and his offense were determined to make their mark on
these playoffs after being overlooked all season, and showed a
little flair of their own. Davis dunked the football over the
goal post after his score to make the Niners' most significant
game on the NFL's big stage since rallying to stun the New York
Giants 39-38 in January 2003.



Brees threw two first-half interceptions and had his NFL-record
streak of 226 postseason passes without an interception snapped
on Goldson's pick in the opening quarter. Brees' streak dated to
the NFC championship game against Chicago five years ago.



But he hit a well-guarded Graham for a leaping 14-yard touchdown
catch at the 9:32 mark of the second quarter, then had a 25-yard
TD completion to Marques Colston to send the Saints into
halftime trailing only 17-14.



Any momentum New Orleans gained was hurt when Colin Jones forced
return man Sproles to fumble after the 49ers punted on their
first possession of the second half. That set up Akers' second
field goal of the day.



Notes: Brees finished the regular season and playoffs with 6,404
yards passing, surpassing Marino's 6,085 on the way to the Super
Bowl in the 1984 season. ... 49ers WR Ted Ginn Jr., nursing a
tender left ankle, left for the locker room before halftime and
didn't return.

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