It doesn’t get any better than what we just witnessed from the San Francisco 49ers and the New Orleans Saints.
How could it?
In an absolute instant classic thriller, the 49ers defeated the favored Saints 36-32, dealing the deciding blow on a 14-yard, 3rd down touchdown pass from Alex Smith to Vernon Davis with 0:09 left on the clock.
It was the perfect way for the perfect football game to end.
Everything in sports, as in life, is relative.
In 1946, Army played Notre Dame in the “Game of the Century”. The game ended in a scoreless tie. That was football then.
Fast forward 67 years and there are college football bowl games ending in 67-56 scores and multiple quarterbacks throwing for 5,000 yards in a season, with lovers of offense loving it and football “purists” abhorring it.
For people who love good defense but also appreciate prolific offense, it can be very difficult to find it on the same field at the same time.
But anyone who watched what unfolded in San Francisco today saw it.
You may think it’s impossible to say a 36-32 game featured great defense, but you had to have watched the game to appreciate it.
Until the 34-point 4th quarter, this was a 20-14 game that featured spectacular interceptions (Tarell Brown), superb pass-rushers (the Smiths Aldon and Justin), defensive backs getting well-timed sacks (Roman Harper and Malcolm Jenkins), running back-like INT returns (Dashon Goldson), run-stopping front sevens (both teams), punishing hits (Donte Whitner on Pierre Thomas), and one of the highest-octane offenses in NFL history being held to just a couple of big plays and only 14 points.
If you love defense, you had to love the first three quarters of this game. There were a few nice plays here and there (Drew Brees’ perfect pass to Marques Colston comes to mind), but for the most part the defenses ruled the day, with San Francisco benefiting from four first half turnovers by New Orleans, though not capitalizing nearly as much as they could have, in large part because Gregg Williams’ Saints D brought effective pressure and discombobulated the 49ers.
Then the 4th quarter started, and we saw a game a lot more like the one we’ve become used to: quarterbacks, pass catchers, and great runners taking over with big, timely play after big, timely play.
Frank Gore busted a 40+ yard run to set up a San Francisco field goal.
Darren Sproles, who had made many catches but been bottled up all day, exploded down the center of the field for a 44-yard touchdown pass.
Vernon Davis caught a long pass to put the 49ers right back in scoring position, which was followed by one of the gutsiest and most unexpected calls you’ll ever see on a key third down: San Francisco bootlegging Alex Smith to the left for an improbable 28-yard touchdown run.
That score put San Francisco up 29-24 with 2:11 to go. Everyone on Twitter was saying that the 49ers had scored too quickly. Little did they know that while they were in a sense correct, because New Orleans would score, it wouldn’t matter because San Francisco would score again.
Drew Brees threw another perfect pass to a well-covered Jimmy Graham that the absurdly athletic tight end grabbed and took to the house. Donte Whitner got caught between breaking it up and making the tackle, and he ended up doing neither.
With 1:37 left, the Saints led 32-29, and the game seemed over with so little time on the clock and the much-maligned Alex Smith under center.
A couple of short completions got the 49ers near midfield, at which time Smith went back to the man who had come up big for him before: Davis. The 49ers tight end, freakishly athletic in his own right, got the ball well into Saints territory. All the 49ers had to do was position the ball for a field goal, tie it up, and take their chances in overtime.
Except that San Francisco has the ever-aggressive and confident Jim Harbaugh as its QB, so playing for overtime was not in the cards.
On 3rd down, with less than 20 seconds to go, the 49ers could have called a running play to center the ball, but they instead took one final shot at the end zone, and it worked out in spectacular fashion. Smith found Davis again for a catch over the middle, and Davis made the grab despite getting clocked by a Saints defender, a la Terrell Owens many years ago against Green Bay. (To complete the comparison, Davis was so overcome with emotion after the catch that he cried on the sideline.)
New Orleans would get one final play, but they were unable to perform any Music City Miracle, and San Francisco moved on to the NFC Championship Game.
My heart is racing again just typing this.
This was a game that, quite literally, had everything. There was great defense, great offense, a furious finish, and the stakes were high.
This game even featured a legendary quarterback in Brees going up against one of the most embattled QBs in NFL history, the former #1 overall pick Smith who has fought gargantuan and well-earned doubt from everyone, even from his own fan base, during this his greatest season by far as a professional.
And somehow, some way, Alex Smith outdueled the great Drew Brees in the 4th quarter.
AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez via ESPN
Most people pick the Saints to win this game. Of those who did pick the 49ers to win, I bet not one thought San Francisco could win like this.
Just one more reason this was such an amazing athletic event: no one could have predicted the way that this game ended. No one.
Yes, Saints-49ers had it all, including the home underdog grabbing the victory – which always adds one extra layer of excitement to any game.
To everyone who watched this incredible game, I imagine you did a lot of nodding while reading this. To everyone who missed it, you missed one of the greatest games in NFL playoff history. (But don’t worry, they’ll be showing it forever wherever classic NFL games are shown.)
They don’t get much better than what we saw in San Francisco today.
It was, quite simply, the perfect football game.