He had to produce just one more score. And Alex Smith just couldn't do it.
By and large, the game had gone according to plan. The Saints' opening march was terrifying, but Donte Whitner both saved a touchdown and sent a message: the Saints might have one of the best offenses ever, but they wouldn't be leaving without some pain.
Smith came out passing, mercifully showing that we would be aggressive on offense as well. The philosophy paid dividends almost immediately, as Smith hooked up with Vernon Davis for a 50-yard score. But from there, of course, it was defense and special teams. Dashon Goldson gift-wrapped a touchdown (though Smith nicely buried our red-zone demons), Madieu Williams set up a field goal, and just like that it was 17-zip. (24 if you count the 7 that Whitner saved.)
Clearly, though, 17 wouldn't be enough, and as the Saints started to chip away, we kept awaiting that one more score, the touchdown that might put the game out of reach. But we just couldn't get it. Two field-goals, along with a truly heroic D, were enough to make it 23-17, but you can play with fire for only so long. And with barely more than four minutes to go, the Saints went ahead, almost predictably.
The game wasn't over, of course. A field-goal offense just needed a field goal. (And don't forget, semper fidelis.) But this O was approaching the limits of our patience. We couldn't demand an O like the Saints', but ours had rarely been more frustrating. Our defense and special teams had staked us to an incredible lead, and our lack of offensive explosiveness--our inability to get that one more score--had squandered it.
Fairly or not, this would fall upon Smith. In this magical year, he'd certainly proven that he could be good. With all he'd been through, that was no small achievement, but he'd largely been just a cog, in a generally unimpressive machine. Now, facing the heat of his first playoff start, he needed to prove that he could be more.
More. Since the day he'd arrived, so long ago now, we'd never stopped demanding more. He'd overcome insults, injuries, two of the worst head-coaches ever--and now he'd given us 13 wins, including a bunch he'd pulled out in the clutch. And, still, it wasn't enough. Regular seasons are nice and all, but the playoffs are where you prove your true worth. To keep alive our hopes and dreams--and to prove he could be our QB of the future--Smith now had to be more than good.
In a brand-new world, he had to be great. And he was
, in a way that no one--not even the staunchest Smith-defender--ever could've dared to imagine.
Immediately, he showed that he wouldn't be crushed by the moment. Without a trace of the timidity that once had seemed to define him, he promptly unloaded his best throw ever: a back-foot bomb that settled right in Davis's hands. Then, when a cosmically awful huddling penalty threatened to put us back in our shell, the Niners perfectly executed perhaps the year's most inspired playcall, and Smith took the ball all the way to the house.
It was, without question, the biggest moment of Smith's career. Until, of course, a moment later.
It was almost unfair. Smith had already won this game, but our D, now spent, surrendered the lead in just 34 seconds, and Smith was forced to win it again. He had every right to be deflated (as those of us watching most certainly were). To throw up his hands and call it a day. To simply accept that his biggest moment--in perfect accord with his star-crossed career--simply wasn't biggest enough.
Instead, he just decided to top it.
50-yard catch-and-run by Davis--on another supremely accurate throw--we faced a third-and-four at the Saints' 14. In a similar spot just a few weeks before, we'd elected to run, kick a field goal, and count on our D. This had led a certain writer to infer a lack of trust in Smith. (Of course, that same writer had inferred the end of Smith's career, on at least a half-dozen previous occasions.) As if in answer, the Niners eschewed the tying field-goal and prompted Smith to go for the win.
I've watched this play about 25 times. What impresses me isn't so much Davis's catch, though his Owens-like hands, toughness, and emotion were magnificent. What draws my eye, every time, is Smith's delivery. He seems to drive every ounce of himself--seven years of pent-up frustration--through that tight window. Steve Young's metaphorical monkey was nothing
compared to the ape that was sitting on Alex Smith. And in delivering a postseason double that no one had ever delivered before--not Young, not Montana, not anyone
--Smith did more than merely escape it. He declared, indeed, that he's here to stay.
Yet Smith is just the most notable symbol, of a team that just won't stop surprising. A mere nine days ago, I wrote that getting into a firefight with the likes of the Saints would be "certifiably suicidal." So then we went ahead and won one. I wrote that we'd never win 38-35. So then we won 36-32. From the offensive line to the secondary. From the draftees to the free agents. Anything and anyone you ever thought to question. Thanks to a certain superhero, it's all come together, in ways that simply defy belief.
Of course, this was no guarantee that we could do that most unlikely of things, which had loomed with menace throughout the year: go to Lambeau Field and win. As magical as this season had been, our magic just never seems to work there. And thus our euphoria was slowly replaced by a crucial realization: faith aside, our toughest task still lay ahead.
And then the Giants took care of that.
Out of the blue, the Niners will host the NFC title game, and though the Giants are on an intimidating roll (as were the Saints, it should be observed), the Niners find themselves favored to win. You wanna talk about miracles? Just think about this: unless there's an upset--and there won't
be, of course--the Niners will go to the Super Bowl.
There's pressure there, to say the least. But no more pressure than Saturday night, with 4:02 to go in the game. We were not unaccustomed to playoff drama, yet nothing could've prepared us for the magic that we were about to see. In moments like those, so much can happen. Championships can be won or lost. Legends can live, or they can die.
In those moments, a man can be, at last, redeemed.
And on a singularly unforgettable day, those moments belonged to Alex Smith.
Date: March 14, 2012 at 10:22 AM
Comment: Alex still is not up to par. They need to stop investing in him and take another route. 29th in passing, and in the weakest division!?!? Needless to say I'm not sold on Smith (never was), and they need to look elsewhere with the new receiving corps!
Date: January 19, 2012 at 11:00 AM
Comment: I can't be upset with the Niners having Singletary, because if it hadn't been for him, we might not have gotten Harbaugh. I have stood in the fire supporting Alex for years now, ever since we first drafted him, and I am glad he is finally getting the respect he deserves.
By: A Smith
Date: January 18, 2012 at 12:29 PM
Comment: Kaplan I hope you enjoyed kissing my a$$ because you are gonna see a lot more of it in the future.
By: Antonio Rodriguez
Date: January 18, 2012 at 9:11 AM
Comment: This feeling of happiness hasn't been felt by me in a long time. So far this season has been magical, and it's going to continue. I have always had that belief in Mr. Smith, I felt we had a team in 2009, 2010, and 2011. I buy my NFL sunday ticket religiously just to watch my niners play, win or lose. This year is about winning, I have watched Alex bring us back in many games the past few seasons, I have watched him fall and now rise, it's about time those who have never been through what he has start believing. He is here to stay. Thank you Harbaugh for believing in Alex, and thank you Alex for dealing with the ridicule by our 49er fans. Allow Alex to do what he does best, COME BACK with a vengeance. I know we have lost 3 years, and possible superbowls, with some of the crappiest coaches i have ever seen. They had the talent, all along.
Date: January 17, 2012 at 4:08 PM
Comment: Kaplan to me the most impressive thing about the TD pass was that there was NO window. I saw the camera view from behind the QB and when u see what Alex sees there is no place to throw that ball safely. The thing that I have never seen Alex do before is throw a receiver open or create a tiny window where none exists. THAT is why that pass was so unbelievably incredible. Alex had never done that before and to do that in the biggest moment was just something else. I heard on the radio yesterday that Alex, yes Alex, was the first QB EVER EVER EVER to lead 2 TD drives to get the go-ahead score at the end of the game. HOLY CRAP! Think of the QBs from all time that have never done what ALEX did. Truly remarkable. Your article does him justice. Even though I was wavery on Alex, I love hearing all the good things said about him. He deserves it. And MORE!
By: Darrell G
Date: January 17, 2012 at 3:43 PM
I've been a fan since The Comeback I, the Saints game with Joe, I've seen the Catch, The Dynasty rise and fall. The Drive, The Catch II, The Comeback II, and so many other thrillers that keep me hooked. I came to expect the magic. I've defended Smith so many times, even Singletary (Hey, we're all wrong now and then). Nothing, I mean nothing in over 30 years of 49ers football and legacy, homerism or anything ever prepared me for the roller coaster I endured Saturday. Charlie Brown didn't just kick the ball once, but twice. I knew the kid had stones and class, never in my wildest dreams could I have known just how much else he had bottled up in there....he just needed the right coach to bring it out.
Date: January 17, 2012 at 1:42 PM
Date: January 17, 2012 at 1:02 PM
Comment: Loved the article Jeff, as usual. I agree that Smith's throw was more impressive than Davis' catch. Don't get me wrong, the catch was fantastic but Alex's delivery of the throw was amazing. Saturday aside, I am very upset with the way the Giants are taking this. They are not taking us seriously at all from the players to the fans to the sportswriters. They are giving us zero respect. They are DANGEROUSLY close to underestimating this team and getting punched in the mouth. Last point, I LOVED your point saying that the Saints were on a roll too before we beat them. And Eli is no Drew Brees. The Saints had won 9 in a row before the miracle at the stick. The Giants are a 9-7 team who is on a mini-roll and they are getting way too big for their britches.
By: M. Horner
Date: January 17, 2012 at 11:31 AM
Comment: In hindsight, just how bad was Mike Singletary? My God, did that guy suck. 6-10 is really the best he could get out of this group? I can't believe we dithered away almost three seasons with him.
Date: January 17, 2012 at 9:30 AM
Comment: I will not write that I told you so. I listened to arguments why Smith sucked, some of them valid, but when I or the few others tried to explain the reasons for failure we were denounced. Win or lose against the Giants this Sunday I am so looking forward to next year. Alex is not an elite QB (yet) but after Sunday we now can think that he might become one. Welcome aboard Jeff!!!
Date: January 17, 2012 at 8:45 AM
Comment: I'm 20 years old and my first time really getting into the Niners was the latter half of the '04 season. Alex was the first first-round pick i ever watched us draft. I saw them draft Alex's first weapon, VD, the next year. It was amazing to see them connect for the game-winner on Saturday. I think the sky is the limit for Alex now...win the next two he may even get the Rodgers monkey off his back. Couldn't be happier for Smith. Now let's go kick some big blue ass Sunday.
By: STL Niner Fan
Date: January 17, 2012 at 7:52 AM
Comment: In my wildest dreams I could never have envisioned the way this season is unfolding....it has been utterly orgasmic (if I may). Going 13-3 (beating some really good teams along the way), getting the 2nd seed, beating the high-flying Saints, Smith doing what no QB has EVER done in a playoff game, one game away from the SuperBowl.....just incredible....utterly amazing. This is what sports is all about. I grew up watching this team set the standard for the rest of the entire NFL. The past 8 years have been so gut-wrenching. To see them once again ascend to the top of the NFL is just indescribable. My hat's off to Alex Smith, his first playoff game and he plays lights out. His accuracy was amazing all game long. It's almost like the spirit of Montana being channeled through him. Thank you Alex, thank you. You're my QB.
Date: January 17, 2012 at 7:40 AM
Comment: Was waiting on this one, Jeff. The memories of the game give me the chills. Usually, I'd fear a let-down by our team. Being lost in the moment of a week prior, thinking about it. Somehow, I think this team is made of sterner stuff, somehow I think Saturday is forgotten and the 'mighty men' are looking forward to Sunday and moving on with humble hearts.
Somehow I think we'll DOMINATE on Sunday, because our Coach is HYPER-aggressive/competitive (which can't be said of Mariucci - credit still, to Mooch) and I don't think we'll let up, for a second. This is a killer team, a very DANGEROUS team. And I'm glad I got my t-shirt. Who's got it better than us? Fired Up for Sunday. Those damn goosebumps are back. Go Niners. Go mighty men. My Heroes. #Faithful #NinerEMPIRE
Jeff, is Alex Smith The Future? I think that was answered on Saturday. What sayest you?
By: Dallas Niner Fan
Date: January 17, 2012 at 7:29 AM
Comment: So what say you, all you Alex Smith naysayers that have posted on this site before? Can't win a shootout, can't win in the playoffs? Can't come from behind? You would rather have Rodgers? How silent all you Alex Smith doom-and-gloomers are now.
By: Paul A.
Date: January 17, 2012 at 6:28 AM
Nice, now 120 minutes of football to go...