Part 1 - "The Drives"
In Bill Walsh's last game, Superbowl XXIII, Joe Montana of the 49ers led his own "Drive" 92 yards into the end zone for the game-winning touchdown. In the NFC Championship game that began the 49ers dynasty, Montana went 89 yards before connecting with Dwight Clark for "The Catch", sending San Francisco to its first Superbowl. "The Catch II" came during the '98 playoffs, when Steve Young led the 49ers 76 yards for a game-winning touchdown to Terrell Owens as the clock neared zero.
In the 2011 NFC Divisional Round playoffs, Drew Brees and the Saints had just taken their first lead of the game after being down at one point 17 to nothing. Alex Smith and the 49ers took over on their own 20, needing to go 80 yards for the game-winning touchdown and their share of 49ers' history. They had 4 minutes to do it.
Smith responded early going 2 for 3 on the first three plays of the drive, with a 13 yard pass to Kendall Hunter, and a beautiful 37 yard sideline throw to Vernon Davis. This was followed by a five yard run by Gore and a 2 yard run by Hunter, setting up a manageable 3rd and 3. The Saints called a timeout to preserve time, and it seemed clear that Harbaugh was willing to run the ball again and go for the field goal, but what happened next set the 49ers back five yards, and might have even saved their Superbowl aspirations.
12 men gathered in the huddle, and the yellow flags poured out. Instead of 3rd and 3, it was 3rd and 8 at the New Orleans 28. But what seemed at-the-time like a ridiculous set-back, forced San Francicso to get creative. The play-call was a designed QB run, and it brought 5'10'', 186 pound Kyle Williams in motion as the ball was hiked, and he delivered a huge crack block to 6'3'', 282 pound defensive end, Will Smith. This opened up the outside and gave Alex the first down, but, more importantly, it freed Joe Staley to continue down-field in front of Alex. Staley would end up going low to deliver the last block needed to send #11 into the end zone untouched for the second longest go-ahead touchdown run by a quarterback in playoff history.
And the game was over. With 2:11 left, "The Run" put the 49ers ahead for good. Drew Brees got the ball at his own 12 and needed to go 88 yards. He threw for 10 yards to Darren Sproles, followed by an incomplete pass, and then went 12 yards to Marques Colston.
Then he went 66 yards to Jimmy Graham... for a touchdown.
Every 49er fan in the world at that moment thought to themselves, or out loud, "You're kidding me..."
After a successful two point conversion, the Saints went up by three, 32 - 29. The ensuing kick off did not bode well, as Ted Ginn was still out, and Williams returned it to the 15.
On that first drive, Alex Smith took about two minutes to go 80 yards. Then Drew Brees took about 30 seconds to go 88. It was the drive of Smith's life, and in an instant it was erased by Brees and his talented tight end, Graham. Now Smith had a minute and a half to go 85.
The drive began with two short dump offs to Gore for 7 and 11 yards. The message here from Smith was, "If you're gonna give us 7 to 11 yards all the way into field goal range, we'll take it." Smith must have saw something he liked on the next play, as he made a great throw to the right side to Brett Swain, who had beaten his man, but the catch proved a difficult one with his left arm hooked by a Saints defender.
On the following snap, Davis lined up right. He immediately beat Malcolm Jenkins inside, and then got over him. The middle of the field was wide open and Alex made a great throw that Davis took all the way to the 20 yard line. This was followed by another checkdown to Gore for 6 yards, and then an immediate spike - setting up a 3rd and 4 with 14 seconds on the clock. The 49ers had time for perhaps only one shot at the end zone; but it wasn't just time ticking against them, it was also the location of the ball: the 13 yard line.
Yes, Alex Smith and Company were in the dreaded red zone - an area of the field where they were so inept and inefficient, that David Akers now holds the record for most field goals in a season. After marching all the way down the field for the second time in four minutes, perhaps Harbaugh would just call a draw and see if something crazy happened. Who knows, maybe Gore or Hunter would break a tackle and get into the end zone; but at the very least the ball would be protected, and overtime was assured.
Instead, rookie coach Jim Harbaugh trusted the man he sees so much of himself in to not only not throw a pick, but to win the game.
Alex Smith did just that. He was 17 of 33 for 164 yards through 56 minutes, but on those final two historic drives he went 7 of 9 for 135 with a touchdown, and he rushed for a 28 yard score as well. Can you say clutch?
This video portrays what a lot of us were probably thinking during that final drive.
It went from cautious hope that, yes, Alex Smith could do this - even from his own 15 with a minute and a half to go; to frustration after what seemed like an eternity passed before the second play was snapped; to half-confusion, half-anger when a deep pass sailed towards Brett Swain of all people, and his arm was hooked by a Saints defender. When Vernon caught his first pass of the drive and took it down the sidelines and eventually out of bounds, we were all excited to be in field goal range, but none of us wanted overtime. No, we wanted Jim Harbaugh to do what he hadn't really done all season: go for the kill.
What happened two plays later will always be a moment we fans can relive again and again. In a year where Vernon's receiving numbers were down, Alex Smith was still being questioned, the 49ers were known for minimizing pass attempts in favor of running and could not score in the red zone, and Jim Harbaugh was playing for field goals - everything that was supposed to happen didn't.
Vernon put up the most receiving yards by a tight end in post-season history. Gore and Hunter ran the ball, yes; but with field goal range well in-hand, and overtime almost certainly assured, Jim Harbaugh called "Vernon Post" and asked Alex Smith - who threw 42 passes for only the 7th time in his career, and for his first victory in such games - to create a red zone touchdown and accomplish what he had already done 13 times this year...
... win. He had to out-duel Drew Brees and the most prolific offense of all time to do it. And he did. It is hard to write a more compelling story, but teams should know by now not to question Alex Smith, or degrade him as a "manager", because to do so is to attract the raised eyebrow of one Jim Harbaugh: "Oh, so you think my quarterback can't beat your quarterback? Ok, Alex. Today is your day. The game plan? At least 40 passes, minimal rush attempts, and two 80-plus yard, game-winning drives. Can you do that, Alex?"
The Phoenix responds, "No question."
Part 2 - Battle of the Comeback Kids
On December 11, 1989, Joe Montana led a 4th quarter comeback, game winning drive performance against Jim Everett and the St. Louis Rams. It was Joe Cool's fourth such comeback on the road that season, which set an NFL record that still stands to this day. A couple weeks later, on Christmas Eve, Jim Everett joined him in that record, as he led a comeback against the New England Patriots.
San Francisco finished their season 14 - 2 and earned a first-round bye, after which they demolished the Vikings 41 - 13 and headed to the NFC Championship game to face a team that had squeezed its way into the playoffs and was now on a four game winning streak (sound familiar?): the St. Louis Rams.
It was Joe Montana as the home favorite against road underdog, Jim Everett. Both quarterbacks had completed a record four 4th quarter comebacks on the road; both had to face each other at Candlestick with a trip to the Superbowl on the line.
Fast forward to the 2011 season, and Alex Smith and Eli Manning have become the 4th and 5th quarterbacks in NFL history to lead four 4th quarter comebacks on the road in one season. Just like Montana did against Everett, Smith had led a 4th quarter comeback of his own against Eli earlier in the season. Just like Everett, Eli now approaches Candlestick as a road underdog.
Just like in January of 1990, the two Comeback Kids square off for a chance to play in the Superbowl. Last time, Smith's counterpart Joe Montana came out on top. Will history repeat itself this Sunday?
Part 3 - The Stats
To end, here are some more cool stats about everyone's favorite quarterback (along with a beautifully done video, courtesy of Soulbrother16):
One and Only - Alex Smith became the only player in NFL history to score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final three minutes of a playoff game.
Happy Feet - Smith has now rushed for a touchdown in five different games in his career, including three times this season. He is 5 and 0 in those games, with 7 passing touchdowns and no interceptions. This was his first rushing touchdown against a non-NFC West team.
Starting the Year Right - In his career, Smith is a perfect 5 and 0 in January games.
Perfect 10 - In games where Smith has thrown at least two touchdowns and no interceptions, he is 10 and 0. He's accomplished that four times this season.
Clutch - Alex Smith is 6 for 7 this season when faced with a 4th quarter deficit of 1 to 8 points (one loss: at Arizona). He's 7 for 8 if you count the fact that on Saturday he did it twice.
A Dozen-With-None - Including the regular and post-season, Alex now has 12 games without an interception. This puts him tied in second place all time for most games in one season without one (most, 14: Tom Brady 2010; Steve DeBerg 1990)
The Phoenix Rises - Smith's six 4th quarter comebacks in one season tie him for second-most all time with Dan Marino, Dan Pastorini, and Peyton Manning. Manning also holds the record, at seven (2009).
Stepping Up - With four touchdowns (three passing; one rushing), Alex Smith had the highest point total of his career in his post-season debut.
Oh, and I am very excited to say I will be getting smashed at some bar somewhere in San Francisco this Sunday for the NFC Championship game. I look forward to partying in the rainy streets, surrounded by a sea of red.
(shameless plug: Alex Smith Will Win a Superbowl)