49ers march on to NFC Championship, down Saints

49ers march on to NFC Championship, down Saints
January 15, 2012, 1:16 am
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The 49ers used the formula that they rode to the No. 2 seed in the NFC playoffs -- with a little something extra.It took the longest run of Alex Smith's career -- a 29-yard TD gallop with 2:11 remaining -- plus Vernon Davis' 14-yard TD with 9 seconds on the clock to secure a 36-32 win over the Saints.Jimmy Graham's 66-yard TD with 1:37 remaining appeared to be the difference for the Saints but the 49ers answered with a comeback that will go down in San Francisco lore.

The game continued a remarkable run for the 49ers in Jim Harbaugh's first season. The 49ers ended an eight-year playoff drought in a year in which the expectations were not high.Harbaugh decided to stick with Smith as his quarterback, and his confidence was rewarded, as Smith put together his best NFL season. The 49ers went through the regular season with just 10 giveaways -- tying an NFL record.The 49ers had a plus-28 turnover margin the regular season, and they continued to be experts at taking the ball away against the Saints.The 49ers earned the first-round bye with a 13-3 regular-season record, and the 49ers' energy from the outset was palpable in front of the red-clad capacity crowd. It was the 49ers' first home playoff game since January 2003, and the 49ers jumped on the Saints early.The 49ers jumped out to a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter, as Smith threw touchdown passes to Davis (49 yards) and Michael Crabtree (4 yards).Smith got rid of the ball before the Saints' blitz could arrive. Davis beat Saints safety Roman Harper in coverage and then broke the attempted tackle of Malcolm Jenkins to get the 49ers on the scoreboard. The 49ers got the ball back on their next possession when safety Dashon Goldson intercepted Saints quarterback Drew Brees and returned it 41 yards to the New Orleans 4-yard line.On third down, Smith hit Crabtree on a slant pattern against the coverage of Saints cornerback Jabari Greer.Special teams got the ball back immediately for the 49ers' offense, as Madieu Williams stripped return man Courtney Roby. Blake Costanzo recovered at the 13. The 49ers settled for David Akers' 25-yard field goal, giving them a 17-0 lead.But the high-octane Saints closed the gap to 17-14 before the end of the half.The Saints were turned away on their first drive after driving inside the 49ers' 10-yard line. Safety Donte Whitner made a legal helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints running back Pierre Thomas, causing a fumble that Patrick Willis recovered.Thomas was not able to return to the game after sustaining the head injury.But the 49ers could not keep the Saints down for the entire first half. Brees threw for 193 yards in the first half, including touchdown passes of 14 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham and 25 yards to Marques Colston.The 49ers forced their fifth turnover of the game in the third quarter when Costanzo forced a Darren Sproles fumble, which Colin Jones recovered. That led to Akers' 41-yard field goal for a 20-14 lead.