for this game

49ers beat Saints in wild finish

Jan 15, 2012 - 2:38 AM San Francisco, CA (Sports Network) - "I don't know what you would call this one," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said of the instant-classic play. "The throw- and-catch?"

How about "The Clutch."

When Vernon Davis hit the ground with Alex Smith's pinpoint pass still in his hands Saturday, he delivered the San Francisco 49ers something they hadn't tasted in nine years.

Playoff victory.

Davis scored on a 14-yard catch with nine seconds remaining, lifting the 49ers to a 36-32 win over the New Orleans Saints and capping a breathless finish in the NFL's first divisional round game of the weekend.

It was the third touchdown scored in the last 2:11 of the game, coming after Smith's 28-yard bootleg gave the 49ers a 29-24 lead and Jimmy Graham's 66- yard catch put the Saints ahead 32-29.

"They ended up making one more play than we did," said Saints coach Sean Payton.

The name of the play? "Vernon post," Harbaugh said -- and who knows if he was telling the truth. But it worked perfectly. Davis slipped behind one defender and held on to Smith's pass in the front of the end zone despite a hit from safety Roman Harper, who couldn't knock the ball loose with his hand.

Despite forcing five turnovers -- including a pair of Drew Brees interceptions -- the 49ers still needed to rally twice in the final minutes to win their first playoff game since 2003 and move on to face the winner of Sunday's Giants-Packers game in next week's NFC Championship game.

"That's about as good as it gets," said Smith. "There were so many ups-and- downs in this game. We knew it was going to be like that a little bit, but we didn't know it was going to be this extreme."

"The guys are just so confident," the quarterback said, "and we feel like as long as there's time left, we have a chance."

Smith, far from a feared NFL quarterback, passed for 299 yards and three touchdowns. His run around the left side of the line for a touchdown with 2:11 remaining -- a gutsy call given the circumstances -- was the game's defining play until two others surpassed it.

Brees, coming off a record-setting season, threw for 462 yards and four TDs.

After watching Smith's go-ahead score, his 62nd pass of the game found Graham in the middle of the field around the Niners' 40-yard line, and the big tight end took it in.

A two-point conversion gave the NFC South-champion Saints a three-point lead with 1:37 remaining -- enough time, it turned out, for the NFC West-champion 49ers to strike back quickly.

"Any time you have a chance to score a touchdown," Brees argued, "you can never do it too quickly.".

Davis set up his own game-winner with a 47-yard catch down the left sideline that Smith dropped in perfectly behind safety Malcolm Jenkins

Davis finished with seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns and Frank Gore ran for 89 yards for the second-seeded 49ers.

Three Saints receivers went over 100 yards: Marques Colston (136), Darren Sproles (119) and Graham (103). Graham scored two touchdowns and Colston and Sproles both reach the end zone once. Sproles had a 44-yard catch-and-run that gave the Saints their first lead of the game with 4:02 remaining.

"It was a hard-fought game. It was difficult to lose," said Payton. "But both teams played hard."

The Saints, despite four turnovers in the first half, found a way to climb out of a 17-0 hole and within three points on two touchdown passes by Brees.

The first one found Graham, who leapt to catch a 14-yard pass in the end zone. After a 49ers punt, the Saints struck again when Brees hit Colston for a 25- yard touchdown that got the Saints within 17-14.

Brees threw his second interception of the half -- Tarell Brown made a leaping grab on a deep pass intended for Devery Henderson -- but the 49ers punted. The Saints were unable to capitalize on a Smith fumble before the half.

Sproles fumbled a punt early in the third quarter and David Akers kicked a 41- yard field goal to give the 49ers a 20-14 lead. It was the fifth turnover for New Orleans.

The Saints pulled within 20-17 on John Kasay's 48-yard field goal early in the fourth quarter -- the longest in franchise postseason history. But Gore found a seam later in the quarter for a 42-yard run that set up Akers' 37-yarder to make it 23-17 San Francisco.

Three and a half minutes later, Sproles slipped tackles on his 44-yard touchdown to make it 24-23 New Orleans and set up the thrill-a-minute finish.

Earlier, San Francisco forced a fumble on the first drive of the game on safety Donte Whitner's helmet-to-helmet hit on Saints running back Pierre Thomas, who left the game with a head injury.

The 49ers didn't capitalize then, but they took a 7-0 lead when Davis broke a tackle then finished off a 49-yard touchdown catch.

Brees was picked off three plays into the ensuing possession when Dashon Goldson jumped a pass, and Smith hit Michael Crabtree on a four-yard slant pass to make it 14-0 in the final minute of the first quarter.

Courtney Roby fumbled the following kickoff -- muffing the catch at first, then losing the ball again in a scrum several yards up the field. The 49ers settled for a 25-yard Akers field goal for their 17-0 lead.

Game Notes

The 49ers won their fourth straight game after ending the regular season with three victories in a row. They hadn't won a playoff games since beating the Giants in the wild card round on January 5, 2003...Harbaugh won his first playoff game as an NFL head coach...The third-seeded Saints were coming off a 45-28 win over Detroit last week in the wild card round. They had a nine-game winning streak snapped...Brees set a single-season record with 5,476 passing yards...Graham left the game briefly after coming down hard on his back on the first drive of the game.