'Twas a victory unlike any other, yet, at the same time, a scene all too familiar for the 49ers faithful.
While no one could have written a script for the end of Saturday's epic – two late 49ers comebacks via touchdowns – much of the game went according to plan. Lots of turnovers and lots of drama.
It all added up to a 36-32 49ers victory over the New Orleans Saints on Saturday, sending San Francisco to the NFC Championship for the first time since the 1997 season.
"If this ain't living, then I don't know what is," Blake Costanzo said.
The game will ultimately remembered for Vernon Davis' game-winning, 14-yard touchdown with nine seconds left – and rightly so – but it was the 49ers defense and special teams that put the team in position for victory early on.
For all the hype and praise being piled on the Saints offense this week, the 49ers defense and special teams units were looking like the main attractions. Before the first half even ended, the 49ers had forced four turnovers and controlled the afternoon's momentum.
"It was a terrific job by our defense, once again," Jim Harbaugh said shortly after winning his first career playoff game as an NFL coach. "You just love the way they play. You love the way they compete. Love how hard they work on the field."
There was plenty to love in the first half, starting with Donte Whitner's jarring blow on the game's opening drive. After watching New Orleans march deep inside the San Francisco territory to start the game, the Pro Bowl safety knocked Pierre Thomas out of the game and the ball out of his hands, as All-Pro Joe Staley recovered it at the 49ers 2-yard line.
Whitner's hit proved to be a harbinger of things to come, as the 49ers would create two more takeaways in the first quarter. Dashon Goldson, who's made a living of being a ball hawk this year, recorded his first career postseason interception from Saints quarterback Drew Brees and returned the ball 41 yards down to the New Orleans 4-yard line.
Goldson's pick set up a 4-yard touchdown grab by Michael Crabtree, putting the 49ers up 14-0 early. On the ensuing kick, Madieu Williams forced a fumble and it was recovered by Costanzo, who emerged from the pile and held the ball up high for all to see.
"We feed off each other," Costanzo said. "We have a bunch of guys that – football and the team is important to them. That's all they care about. They don't care about the individual; they care about the team. When you do that, good things happen."
Costanzo's recovery set the table for a 25-yard field goal from David Akers. Just like that, the 49ers held a 17-0 lead and Candlestick Park was alive and rocking. And before the half could end, Tarell Brown added another interception for good measure.
It was just the type of performance that the 49ers faithful had grown accustomed to. After Saturday's contest, the 49ers now have a turnover differential of plus-23 (28-to-5) in nine games at Candlestick Park.
"I'm not surprised at all," said Goldson, who was voted to his first Pro Bowl this year. "We've got a good secondary, we've got a good football team. We've been doing this all year."
Another the 49ers have done all year is bring the lumber with their tackling. Whether it was Justin Smith pulling down an offensive tackle and Brees in one swift second-half move, Whitner's big hit or several strong special teams tackles, the 49ers were flying all over the field.
"We like to think that we play defense the right way," 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. "We play physical, we play with our hands, we run to the ball. We don't try and do anything too fancy. … We try and play defense the old-fashioned, hard school way."
But sure enough, the Saints offense came to life in the first half, making the score 17-14 at intermission. While the 49ers were able to shut out New Orleans in the third quarter, Brees and the Saints made things interesting down the stretch.
Perhaps a little too interesting.
New Orleans took its first lead of the game with 4:02 remaining, when Brees hit Darren Sproles on a screen pass that went for a 44-yard touchdown. Following a go-ahead, 28-yard touchdown run by Alex Smith, the Saints responded with a 66-yard touchdown connection between Brees and tight end Jimmy Graham.
But all's well that ends well, and Davis' last-second heroics saved the day.
"I haven't seen a game like that in all the year's I've played," Carlos Rogers said. "Two good teams, two good offenses, two good defenses and we came out on top."
Notes and Quotes
Davis set an NFL postseason record with 180 receiving yards on Saturday, the highest single-game total for a tight end in league history.
The 49ers are headed to their first NFC Championship game since the 1997 season and the 13th in franchise history. San Francisco awaits the winner of Sunday's New York Giants-Green Bay Packers matchup. If the Giants win, the 49ers will host New York for a Week 10 rematch, while the Packers would host the NFC title game with a victory on Sunday.
"We're one game away from the Super Bowl, it feels good," Whitner said. "But it'd be an even greater feeling if we win next week."
The 49ers became the first team in NFL history to score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final three minutes of the fourth quarter in a postseason game.
Akers nailed all three of his field goal attempts on the afternoon, giving him 34 postseason conversions for his career, which is the second-highest total in NFL history behind Adam Vinatieri (45).