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NFL Divisional Round Review

Alex Smith erased years of disappointment after going toe-to-toe with the Saints and emerging victorious. Smith and the 49ers owe their revival to Jim Harbaugh. Oh yeah, Tom Brady and the Patriots were pretty good, too. Also, little children apparently upset America.

(3) Saints 32 at (2) 49ers 36
For most of Saturday afternoon, the 49ers refused to take control of a game the Saints continually tried to give away. For whatever reason – time zone change, poor preparation, over confidence – the Saints could not have played a worse 1st quarter, committing three turnovers and falling behind 14-0. San Francisco’s lead expanded to 17 before New Orleans finally woke up and closed the gap to 17-14 at the half despite a fourth turnover.

The 3rd quarter was the calm before the storm. Aside from a 49ers field goal courtesy of yet another New Orleans turnover, nothing happened. Six possessions. Four punts. Three points. Like I said, nothing happened. That trend continued into the 4th quarter as the teams traded field goals. Then, with about five minutes remaining and the 49ers leading 23-17, all hell broke loose.

Saints: 9 plays, 79 yards, Touchdown.
49ers: 6 plays, 85 yards, Touchdown.
Saints: 4 plays, 88 yards, Touchdown.
49ers: 7 plays, 85 yards, Touchdown.
Game Over.

So we’re clear, the 49ers were quarterbacked by Alex Smith. Not Joe Montana, Steve Young, or even Jeff Garcia. Alex Smith. Obviously, the Saints have been known to score in bunches, especially in big moments, so their outburst wasn’t as shocking. But the 49ers? This 49er team? Unreal.

Let’s start with the Saints traveling to the West Coast to take on the NFC West champion and losing as the favored team for the second straight season. There is a lot of blame to go around for this one and the offense deserves most of it. Sure, the defense was atrocious in those final minutes. They made Alex Smith look like Aaron Rodgers. In fairness, though, Smith and the 49er offense had done nothing since the 1st Quarter, so it’s possible the New Orleans defense had fallen asleep. Regardless, you can’t turn the ball over five times and blame your defense for losing a playoff game. The Saints were uncharacteristically sloppy and careless throughout the 1st half. You can credit the impotence of the 49er offense or the Saints defense for keeping New Orleans in the game after those turnovers. Either way, the Saints were lucky to even have a chance at winning.

Enough about the Saints. Today belonged to Jim Harbaugh. Harbaugh has shown all season that he has the guts to go all in and make decisions other coaches would shy away from. On a crucial 3rd and 7 late in the 4th quarter, Harbaugh called a naked bootleg that went 28 yards for the go-ahead touchdown. I think FOX’s announcers did Harbaugh a disservice for not acknowledging what a gutsy call that was.

After the Saints took back the lead and Smith again led the 49ers into field goal range, Harbaugh continued to press toward the goal line. How many coaches would get conservative in that scenario and play for overtime? Not Harbaugh. Even with the unproven and playoff rookie Smith under center, Harbaugh attacked the Saints defense looking to win the game instead of settling for a tie and overtime.

All season Harbaugh has told anyone that would listen how much he trusted Alex Smith. I just assumed it was coach talk to keep his quarterback’s confidence up. Apparently, I was wrong because you don’t put your season in the hands of your quarterback like Harbaugh did today unless you absolutely trust him. Harbaugh’s shtick isn’t just an act. He’s as fearless and bold as he appears.

The unquestionable highlight of Saturday was seeing the 49er players react to such an emotional victory. I don’t usually appreciate rubbing noses in defeat, but Alex Smith jabbing to the Saints (who were taunting him all afternoon) was tremendous. For a career underachiever to step up in the biggest moment and outduel perhaps the NFL’s top quarterback was just awesome. He unleashed eight years of disappointment on that Saints defense after the winning touchdown. Good for him.

Even better was Vernon Davis’ tearful celebration with Harbaugh. Being a part of a losing franchise takes a toll on players. We’ve seen it happen so many times to talented athletes. Watching a terrific player like Davis get over that hump in such dramatic fashion is why we love sports. It’s why we watch.

Davis was criticized as an immature diva before his notorious sideline confrontation with former coach Mike Singletary. Singletary sent Davis to the locker room that day and since then Davis has been a leader and difference maker for the 49er franchise. Just like Smith’s outburst, Davis’ tears were years of failure, disappointment, and frustration pouring out. I’m sure they were also tears of gratitude for Harbaugh, who has now taken a team many wrote off before the season to the Conference Championship game. Did you happen to notice what Harbaugh said to Davis as he exited the field with tears flowing down his face? “You f—in’ did this s–t.”

Harbaugh gave this team of underachievers confidence and in one season transformed them into division champions and title contenders. You can’t say enough about him. Great team. Great win. Even better coach.

(4) Broncos 10 at (1) Patriots 45
There really isn’t a whole lot to say. The Broncos were overmatched from the get-go. A Tom Brady interception made it interesting for a brief 10-minute stretch, but that was about it. As I mentioned last week, this was a desperation game for Brady and the Patriots and they played like it. While it was only one win over a significantly lesser opponent, it was the most dominating win of the postseason thus far. It was also New England’s biggest win since the AFC title game four years ago.

Although it’s a little unfortunate to lose the Tim Tebow storyline, you always want the best teams with the best players competing for the championship. The Patriots are clearly one of those teams and Brady is the NFL’s version of Kobe Bryant – a fierce competitor who wants to win and nothing else (well, and promote Uggs, too).

Also, big congratulations to the United States of America. Protecting the sanctity of broadcasting commercials is a thankless task, but it’s nice to see so many people outraged by Focus on the Family’s John 3:16 commercial. I mean, whenever you have children quoting Bible versus on National TV instead of advertisements promoting sex, extramarital affairs, booze, and women’s lingerie; you have to lash out. I will sleep comfortably at night knowing there are people out there that truly care about what my kid sees on television. I don’t know what I would have done had he been awake to see that appalling and threatening commercial. Thanks again, America.

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