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Smith more than proves worth as he leads 49ers to NFC title game

by | CBSSports.com Senior NFL Columnist
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SAN FRANCISCO -- He is not Joe Montana. He is not Steve Young. But he is good enough to have the San Francisco 49ers where they haven't been since the 1997 playoffs, which means maybe it's time to re-evaluate Alex Smith.

Because without him the 49ers aren't where they are now, and where they are is in their first NFC Championship Game since Young quarterbacked the team.

You can talk about their defense. You can talk about running back Frank Gore. You can even talk about their Pro Bowl punter, kicker and marvelous special teams.

But, in the end, the 49ers don't get to the conference championship game without Alex Smith's heroics in Saturday's 36-32 upset of New Orleans.

"I thought Alex played extremely bold," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It might be time to give Alex credit, huh?"

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Yeah, I'd say so.

All he did was rally the 49ers from behind twice in the last 2:12, scoring once on a 28-yard touchdown run, then finishing off the Saints with a 14-yard scoring pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds left. His run climaxed an 80-yard drive in six plays; the pass finished off an 85-yard series in seven plays; the standing ovation he received afterward was unlike anything since the days of, well, Montana and Young.

That's not to say he's either of them. Or close. But it is to say he's not the Alex Smith he once was -- and that's a quarterback so ineffective that the 49ers drafted his successor this year. But Smith would not budge for rookie Colin Kaepernick, and the 49ers produced their first winning season and first division title since 2002.

The book on Smith was that he was a game manager and couldn't make critical plays if the 49ers needed them. Only that description doesn't fly anymore. Not after this year. Not after Saturday. In fact, his heroics vs. New Orleans marked the sixth time this season that Smith rallied his team from behind -- with four of them on the road.

None, of course, was as marvelous as this, with Smith beating a white-hot New Orleans team and a record-setting quarterback with a near-perfect fourth-quarter that featured four of the 49ers' five longest gains.

CBSSports.com Grades
New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
C-
The Saints turned it over five times but were still in position to win the game twice in the final five minutes. However, both times their defense let them down, as 49ers QB Alex Smith and TE Vernon Davis wreaked havoc on the Saints safeties. Brees threw for 458 yards and four touchdowns, but it wasn’t enough.
San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
A-
The final, hectic, five minutes bore no resemblance to the first 55, but QB Alex Smith and the offense got hot when they absolutely had to and mounted two touchdown drives of 80 and 85 yards at the end to twice steal the win from the Saints. The defense and special teams forced five takeaways, but faltered late.
By Michael Erler
RapidReports Correspondent

"I thought it was a spectacular performance," Harbaugh said.

I'll second that. Smith's 28-yard run left with just over two minutes left was reminiscent of similar touchdown scoring sprints by Young. His game-winning touchdown pass with just nine seconds left was reminiscent of last-minute scoring passes by Montana.

But they're Hall of Famers. Alex Smith is just trying to make a name for himself. And on Saturday he did.

"Can you tell us what this means to you personally?" someone asked him.

"That we're still playing, that's what it means," Smith said. "I don't want this to end."

I can understand why. It's not just Smith's play that's impressive; it's his coaches' faith in him, and nowhere was it more apparent than when Saturday's game mattered most. With the 49ers down by one and just over two minutes left, Harbaugh gave him the go-ahead to run a third-and-8 call offensive coordinator that Smith favored.

It was a run to his left, and it produced a touchdown.

Then, nearly two minutes later, with San Francisco in perfect position for a game-tying field goal, Harbaugh listened to quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst and called a play they rehearsed last week in practice. It was a slant to Davis they were sure could work ... but only if Smith got rid of the ball quickly.

He did.

"I knew it was going to have to be a bang-bang play," Smith said. "I didn't want to force it if it wasn't there. I got the window, and I cut it loose, and he made a great play."

The touchdown occurred in the same area of the same end zone where Terrell Owens scored in the 1998 playoffs when he rose above the Green Bay secondary to make a last-second game-winning catch. Only that one happened in the wild-card round. It didn't launch the 49ers to a championship game. And it was dubbed "The Catch II," meaning the most difficult part of Davis' reception was trying to name it.

"How about 'The Grab?'" Davis said, "Or 'The Snatch?'"

No, "The Grab" will do just fine, thank you.

"I just made the play," said Davis, who had 180 yards in catches and two touchdowns. "I made it happen. Alex made it happen. If it wasn't for him we wouldn't have made the play. So kudos to Alex."

Kudos indeed.

Smith is the guy the 49ers chose at the top of the 2005 draft, passing over Cal's Aaron Rodgers to take him. By now, you know what happened then: Rodgers dropped to the 24th spot, promised to remember the teams that passed him and vowed revenge. He got it when he and the Packers won Super Bowl XLV, but imagine what's at stake if he, the 49ers and Smith collide next weekend.

It could happen. And it will, if Green Bay beats the New York Giants Sunday.

But Rodgers' reputation has been established. Smith's is still in the works. The guy that virtually everyone in the Bay Area -- including the 49ers themselves -- had relegated to the discard pile has resurrected himself and proven that, yes, he can win big games and, yes, he can win them by making plays from behind. If, as Davis said, "big-time players make big plays in big-time games," then Alex Smith just moved to the next level.

"I think [people] learned today that he's a winner and has tremendous heart," said safety Donte Whitner. "He can win big football games. He beat Ben Roethlisberger on Monday Night Football. He beat Eli Manning in a big game. He beat Drew Brees. He beat Matthew Stafford. I think it's time to start mentioning him as a good quarterback in the National Football League."

He'll get no argument from anyone here, including the New Orleans Saints. They dared Smith to beat them, and he did. Now he and the 49ers are one win from their first Super Bowl appearance since 1994.

That should tell you something about Alex Smith.

"It just shows he has the will to never quit," said linebacker Patrick Willis. "With some of the things that have been said about him, to see him this year sticking with it when most would have given up and gone somewhere else, he stayed. I thank God he did. I'm happy he's our quarterback."

He should be. So should this city.

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