One shot. The two words were churning inside Vernon Davis’ head from halftime onward Saturday. When he lined up on the New Orleans 14-yard line with 14 seconds left in the game and the 49ers trailing by three points, they were pounding like a jackhammer.
“We only got one shot,” Davis shouted to his teammates at halftime in the locker room. “If you don’t take advantage of it, you go home.”
Davis indeed took advantage, and it’s the Saints who are going home after falling 36-32 in a wild and heart-pounding game that had five lead changes and saw both teams put up more than 400 yards of offense.
On a play specifically installed to take advantage of the Saints’ red-zone tendencies on defense, Davis cut across the goal line in front of safety Roman Harper and hauled in a dart from Alex Smith for the game-winning score with nine seconds left.
Like Terrell Owens after his game-winning touchdown catch against Green Bay in the playoffs in 1999, Davis rose after a big hit with tears streaming down his face and was embraced on the sideline by his head coach.
Afterward, a still-emotional Davis said the play ought to be dubbed “The Grab,” and indeed it had heavy shades of Owens’ “The Catch II” in 1999 and the original “The Catch” in 1982.
This game, however, may have been better than either of those. “It’s history, it’s legendary,” Davis said.
After a staid third quarter, in which only three points were scored, the two teams combined for 34 points in the back-and-forth fourth quarter.
The Saints took their first lead of the game, 24-23, after tailback Darren Sproles converted a short throw from Drew Brees into a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown.
Short and intermediate passes that turned into big plays had been San Francisco’s defensive Achilles’ heel during the regular season, and one of them stung the 49ers again after they regained the lead on a 28-yard touchdown run by Smith with 2:11 remaining in the game.
Brees, who had been harassed by Justin Smith and the 49ers’ pass rushers throughout the afternoon, brought his team to his own 34-yard line before throwing to tight end Jimmy Graham in heavy coverage. Graham turned to snag the 25-yard pass, stayed on his feet and then outraced a gaggle of 49ers defenders to the end zone. The Saints went for a two-point conversion, got it and led 32-29 with 1:27 left.
On the visitors’ sideline, the Saints celebrated as if they were heading to the NFC Championship Game, and with only one timeout left, it seemed the best the 49ers could hope for was a field goal that would send the game into overtime.
Instead, the 49ers beat the Saints at their own game, with Alex Smith outplaying Brees and Davis outdueling Graham, who will represent the NFC in the Pro Bowl.
On second down from the San Francisco 33-yard line, Smith saw Davis – as he was for most of the game_in single coverage and hit him on the left side of the field. Davis brought in the pass and was hauled down at the New Orleans 20-yard line, a gain of 47 yards. Davis finished with 180 receiving yards, the most ever for a tight end in the playoffs.
A short pass from Smith to running back Frank Gore took the ball to the 14-yard line. Smith then spiked it with 14 seconds left.
At that point, the 49ers easily could have brought in David Akers for his fourth field goal of the game. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman, however, decided to go for the kill.
Roman said the big play to Davis had staggered the New Orleans defenders. Besides, the 49ers had the perfect play in their arsenal.
It was drawn up during the week by quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, who had spent the previous five seasons in Carolina and who knew the Saints’ defense, especially the red-zone defense, well.
The 49ers wagered that Harper would be standing flatfooted two yards deep in the end zone and that Davis had a good shot of catching the pass in front of him. “At that point, it becomes a body-position game, a leverage game,” Roman said.
The 49ers ran the play in practice all week in anticipation of such a scenario. The only difference was that in practice, Davis lined up on the right side of the formation. In the game, he was on the left.
It didn’t matter to Smith, who finished with 299 passing yards, his highest total of the season.
All season, the opponents’ game plan against the 49ers had been to stop Gore and the running game and dare Smith to beat them through the air.
Said Roman, still aggressive a half-hour after the game ended: “How’d that work out for them?”