With 14 seconds left to go in the 4th quarter, Alex Smith settled into a hunched over stance and called for the snap. From the shotgun position, he made one quick read and riffled the ball to Vernon Davis. It was a touchdown and the 49ers beat the Saints on a desperate 3rd and 3 play.
In a lot of ways, this play might represent the high water mark of the Jim Harbaugh era. Cases can be made for other compelling moments - Colin Kaepernick's fantastic performance against the Green Bay Packers also comes to mind. Setting an NFL record for rushing yards will do something like that.
It's fitting that a huge moment in the Harbaugh era, and in Smith's 49er career, came against the Saints. For one thing, the Saints have become a ubiquitous team during Harbaugh's time here. The divisional round game, in which Alex showed his true AleX colors, capped off the 2011 season (it was played in January 2012) and also came during Harbaugh's first season as an NFL head coach. Even though the loss to the New York Giants later in the playoffs was devastating, I think we were all brimming with optimism. If we could beat the Saints, a team that seemed synonymous with NFC powerhouse, then we could go toe to toe with the best for the next few seasons. With Harbaugh at the helm, anything was possible. The Saints game was a barometer for the 49ers' season. We just didn't know it at the time.
It makes sense, in a way, for the Saints to have this barometric power when it comes to the 49ers. As an old division rival, the 49ers and the Saints shared a division before realignment in 2002. They saw each other quite often, of course, and developed a pretty strong rivalry, albeit one that simmered in the background for a long time. This all came to a head in 1987, Jim Mora's first season as the Saint's head coach. After a very close game between the two teams - the 49ers ended up winning 24-22 - Mora expressed his disappointment by saying "I'm tired of saying coulda, woulda, shoulda." This sort of frankness seemed to motive the team; the Saints continued to play very good football, even if they were coming in second place in the division seemingly year after year. The 49ers were just that much better than the Saints. And I'm sure it stung.
For those Saints, the 49ers provided a good barometer. They represented that oh-so-close feeling. Later that season the Saints, playing the Minnesota Vikings in the Wild Card round, were routed 44-10. Could, woulda, shoulda. Yet, the reverse of the 24-22 win the 49ers had would seemingly come back to haunt them. In 2010, during Mike Singletary's last season, the 49ers played a physical game against the Saints, basically throwing them around the field at will. Alex Smith threw for 275 yards and a TD while Gore ran for 112 yards and a TD on 20 carries. But, Smith threw 2 INTs, and the 49ers ended up losing the game 25-22 - a remarkably similar score. And though we wouldn't make the playoffs under Singletary that year (or any year), I think we probably had a similar reaction to Saints fans back in 1987: the team was obviously stacked with talent and seemed on the cusp of just breaking out and taking the division. Again, the Saints proved to be a great barometer for how the team was playing.
I have one more example from the rivalry that demonstrates this point. Last season was probably the most frustrating season in a while - definitely since Harbaugh took over as coach. Our team was really good, but the Seattle Seahawks seemed invincible. And we came so close to beating them. So close. (Note: I'm not over it yet). And, lo and behold, the Saints game serves as a good metaphor. With the Saints and 49ers tied at 20, Ahmad Brooks hit Drew Brees, wrapping his arm around his neck. The sack drew a flag. I still contend that the hit was borderline, but likely legal. If I could identify the beginning of a growing sense of anger about how the referees are calling the game, I think this would be it. The penalty basically handed the Saints a victory; they kicked a field goal and won 23-20.
So, here's to hoping that the upcoming game serves as a portent. While I don't believe that Saints-49er games have predictive powers or anything, it is odd how indicative they are of the two teams' fortunes. If the 49ers want to return to dominance, they are going to need to start this week by putting up a win. A loss won't doom them, but it will sure feel like it.