There was a point in the third quarter of Saturday's epic shoot-out between the New Orleans Saints and San Francisco 49ers that Jim Harbaugh and his team seemed to be satisfied with just crawling into the NFC Championship. It was fitting, seeing as San Francisco has had ugly, gut-checking wins throughout the season where they had just played well enough to win. But they have also had victories where the offense surprised and ultimately succeeded this season. The comeback win against the Philadelphia Eagles comes to mind, and so does the dizzying victory over the favored Saints on Saturday afternoon at Candlestick Park.
But as tight end Vernon Davis came off the field after hauling in his second touchdown of the day with nine seconds remaining in the game, tears ran down his face. He then ran right into Harbaugh's arms and we knew this was more than just a game to the 49ers. Harbaugh was more than just a head coach of an NFC Championship-bound team.
Davis' tears were not because of the touchdown that sealed the victory and silenced the Who Dat Nation. The tears were because of the journey he, Alex Smith, Frank Gore, and the rest of the many players on this 49ers team that have sustained years with this franchise with no playoffs to show, have been through.
Harbaugh came in this last offseason with a "family first" mentality, and the team, including Davis who has had his uncontrollable moments with head coaches, bought into it. Saturday, with nine seconds to go in the game, was a culmination of all that hard work throughout the years with a franchise that had yet to reward its players.
Harbaugh single-handedly repaid Davis, Smith, Gore and all the others for all their hard work throughout the years with this franchise by giving them one of most well-coached games we will see the entire NFL season on Saturday. The franchise will not look back as they head to the NFC Championship next weekend.
Alex Smith is no slack, either.
With less than twenty seconds to play in a 32-29 game, and a field goal to tie all but guaranteed, Harbaugh let Smith play in shotgun formation, as if it was Tom Brady or Drew Brees who was throwing the ball. Smith did not just throw a dump pass or even hand it off to Gore , as we all expected to run down the clock, it was a throw to the middle of the endzone for a touchdown. The game-winning touchdown.
This is not Rex Grossman of the 2007 Bears where the team went to the Super Bowl despite of its quarterback. The 49ers are heading to the NFC Championship because of their quaterback. His 85-yard touchdown drive with about 1:30 left to play is by far the biggest stage he has ever been on and might ever be on. He showed he is more than just a game-manager with that final minute drive and zero interceptions, and it is thanks to the trust Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Vic Fangio have in him that led him to that success.
The game against the favored Saints on the road showed that Harbaugh is more than just a college coach, Smith is more than just a game-manager and this team is more than just a one-trick defensive pony.
Oh, and that defense is as dynamic as there is in the NFL. Just ask the New Orleans offensive line (the best in the NFL), who received a rather large helping in that first half, and a little more again in the second half.
Harbaugh has this team winning and the nation believing again in San Francisco. That was a well-prepared football team out there against Drew Brees and the Saints that looked like they had spent the last two weeks scheming on ways to shut down the New Orleans offense and make a dent in their defense.
We can expect the same preparedness in the NFC Championship game next weekend.