“It’s a miracle.” My grandma (we call her Nona), who gave me my first Joe Montana jersey at the age of 2, texted me that succinct phrase moments after the San Francisco 49ers defeated the New Orleans Saints 36-32 in the NFC Divisional playoff round Saturday.
At about 2:30 a.m. his time, 5,000 miles away, my brother, living in Germany with his wife, who has watched every game on his laptop since relocating three years ago, sent me a message, “How am I supposed to go to bed now? Fantastic moment!
I’m glad he was able to see it.
My dad, who started my Montana trading card collection 20 years ago and who has spent countless hours keeping inventory on the hundreds now tucked away in binders stashed in a closet, sent four “OMG’s” followed by “we won.” My mom seconds later buzzed me with, “we are crying just like Davis.”
The flashbacks came pouring in.
I sat slouched on a couch – sweaty from head to toe, trembling, gasping for air, checking to see if my heart was still in my chest – in a living room with a group of die-hards, most in our upper 20s, exhausted and looking at one another.
Did that just happen? Alex Smith to Vernon Davis? The Niners are one win from the Super Bowl? Alex Smith? Really?
We had all just experienced emotions not felt in a decade. We invested every ounce of our strength. We were spent.
Four hours I will never forget. Just to have those feelings again was awesome. It’s one win, and it wasn’t for the Super Bowl. But still, it means a lot for a lot of people.
We were taken to incredible high’s after Smith executed one of the best play calls – ever – for a 28-yard quarterback sweep around left tackle to the end zone put the Niners ahead 29-24 with 2:11 remaining in the game. We were hammered back down to an all-time low when Drew Brees connected with the at-times unstoppable Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard touchdown that looked like the nail in the coffin.
But Smith, with 1:37 on the clock, took the 49ers 85 yards in seven plays, the last of which, a 14-yard pitch and catch to Davis – the game winner with nine seconds left. Back on Cloud … uh … 49er.
It was a snapshot of retribution for two players whose careers had been written off at one time or another. In Smith’s case, for the past seven seasons.
Again, three days later. Are you serious?
All of us in that room had childhoods filled with expectations that the Niners would be in the playoffs. We were spoiled with five Super Bowl championships (well, four in my lifetime) and dozens of Hall of Fame players. It had been so long. (Some really bad seasons.) And now, it’s off to the NFC Championship game. At Candlestick nonetheless, a much-maligned stadium that has hosted seven other conference title games dating back to 1970, when the contest was introduced to the league. Where “The Catch” spring boarded the franchise out of obscurity. Where the Niners beat the Bears 23-0 in 1985-86, blistered the then-Los Angeles Rams 30-3, and where Joe Montana’s career with San Francisco basically came to an end in a 15-13 loss against the New York Giants in the 1990 conference title game. The early 1990s pitted the Dallas Cowboys versus the 49ers in three straight NFC title tilts. Dallas won the first two, but the Niners took the third at Candlestick in 1994-95. The last time the Niners were in this position was the 1997-98 season. Brett Favre’s Green Bay Packers knocked the Niners out one win shy of the big dance in front of 68,987 at the Stick.
Fifteen years later, here we are again. The Giants are headed west. The Niners beat the G-Men 27-20 in November. (Oh, and remember the Jeff Garcia-led 25-point comeback to stun New York 39-38 on Wild Card weekend Jan. 5, 2003?) This time, though, a spot in Super Bowl 46 is at stake.
This is real. The Niners are a contender. An identical core of players from a team that struggled to a 6-10 record one year ago – 8-8 before that. Enter Jim Harbaugh, who beckoned the best from each player and, in return, received 10-fold what he demanded. We are past the Cinderella stage. No team this complete, with a defense as fast and physical, with a coach this passionate and a bond this tight, can be considered a fluke or a phenomenon.
Saturday’s game was the one of the best in franchise history. I’m ready to go through all of that again Sunday. Bring on the Giants. I’m not ready yet to climb down off this cloud.