A magical new beginning for transformed 49ers

It was joyous bedlam at Candlestick Park late Saturday afternoon, but Vernon Davis was crying. Tears streamed down his face as he glided to the sidelines, finally landing in the outstretched arms of Jim Harbaugh. The coach clutched his star tight end, just as Davis had clutched the winning TD pass moments before, putting a storybook ending on an epic playoff victory for the re-born franchise.

The magic is back. And so are the 49ers.

This was a game to erase all lingering doubts about a team transformed, a quarterback resurrected, a throwback brand of football making it in today's NFL when facing an all-out assault from a record-setting offense.

The 49ers are going back to the NFC Championship Game for the first time since 1997, and it is for no other reason than that they belong there. They may or may not be a team of destiny, but they are a team of three equal parts. And those three parts all came up huge Saturday in San Francisco's first playoff game in nine seasons.

And each part had to come up big, or else the Niners would have been near-miss losers instead of thrilling, dramatic comeback winners against a New Orleans Saints team that truly can't be stopped for a full 60 minutes.

So the team that has been winning this season with great defense and superior special teams was left needing its so-so offense to rise to a level above in the final minutes with the fate of this amazing turnaround season hanging in the balance.

And the little offense that couldn't, finally did.

Led by Davis and Alex Smith, the quarterback-who-never-could-but-now-can, the 49ers delivered in the clutch to score two stunning touchdowns in the final 2:11 of play – each coming after New Orleans had hit San Francisco's proud but tiring defense with shocking long-distance touchdown plays of its own – to add to the annals of the greatest playoff games this franchise of great playoff history every has played.

It was 49ers 36, Saints 32 after one of the wildest, most wide-open finishes a game that started off being dictated by defense ever could have. It was San Francisco standing at the end of this battle of NFC heavyweights, with Smith and Davis performing like champions and the Niners playing like a team that just wasn't willing to lose.

"You're going to live and die in these games," Harbaugh said after he finally emerged from a jubilant winning locker room. "We lived. We move on and we move on in spectacular fashion. That was special. I can't remember winning a game in such spectacular fashion as this one."

Spectacular might be an understatement.

The 49ers threatened an early knockout, getting turnover after turnover to bolt to an early 17-0 lead. But their suspect offense went stagnant, allowing a New Orleans offense for the ages to keep hammering away until the Saints finally took their first lead of the game on a big-play touchdown with 4:02 remaining in the fourth quarter.

As Darren Sproles pulled in a short pass from Drew Brees and left San Francisco defenders sprawled on the field while completing a 44-yard scoring play, a certain nausea began to settle in at Candlestick. The Niners are not proven as a comeback team. Their offense had done almost nothing the entire second half. Surely, the gig was finally up.

But then Smith led San Francisco right down the field, 80 yards in six plays, one of them a 37-yard pass to Davis, the drive ending with Smith scooting around left end on an improbable misdirection quarterback sweep for a 28-yard touchdown run that put the Niners up 29-24, a lead that looked good with 2:11 to play.

But no. The Saints hit right back, with Brees finding Jimmy Graham over the middle against a breaking-down defense, Graham going 66 yards to the end zone for what looked like the final back-breaking blow.

Smith and Co. had one last chance, starting at their own 15-yard line with 1:32 left to play. But everybody knows that Smith is no Joe Montana or Steve Young, and that this San Francisco offense in no way resembles the attacks engineered by those two Hall of Fame quarterbacks.

But then Smith went out and made his own legend.

"I feel so much different than in years past, just the sideline atmosphere is so much different," Smith said. "When bad things happen, when plays get made against us, things like that. The guys are just so confident. I think as long as there's time left, we have a shot."

Playing the best clutch football of his life, Smith whizzed the 49ers down the field, working the clock, hitting Davis for a huge 47-yard gain, spiking the ball at the New Orleans 14 with 14 seconds to go to stop the clock for one more shot at the end zone before David Akers would come in to kick a short field goal and send the game into overtime.

But overtime never came. Neither did that kick. What came was Smith firing a strike over the middle to Davis, a pattern called "Vernon Post," and Davis catching it at the goal line and ramming into safety Roman Harper before landing in the end zone with nine seconds remaining.

"You got to call it ‘The Grab,'" Davis said of his reception that ranks up there with "The Catch" and other seminal plays in 49ers lore, particularly since it made San Francisco the first team in NFL history to score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final three minutes of a playoff game.

Davis cried tears of joy after setting a NFL playoff record for a tight end with 180 yards receiving, but he was all smiles moments later, embracing with Smith and other teammates, moving from corner to corner of the field as a swarm of cameras and microphones followed and the stadium around him continued to rock.

"This is huge for us," Davis exclaimed. "It's history. Legendary. Anything you can describe."

There are so many ways to describe this one, and it promises to be described for a long time to come.

But Smith, humble and light on emotion as always, may have described it best after a perspective-altering afternoon that truly returned the Niners to NFL pre-eminence and left everybody marveling about what it still to come.

"We're still playing," he said. "That's what it means, and it feels great. We've got another week of work and I don't want this end."

For these 49ers, Saturday looked much more like a magical new beginning.

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