Sunday, January 15, 2012

Final Score: SF 36 - NO 32

Noman got the score wrong, but not the result!  The San Francisco 49ers scored a touchdown in the final seconds to defeat the New Orleans Saints in a thriller.

Vernon Davis, shown above crying in his coach's arms after making the game winning catch with :09 seconds remaining, was magnificent.  He came to play.  His final line: 7 catches for 180 yards--a single game, post-season record for tight ends--and 2 touchdowns.  And, that doesn't capture how well he performed, especially in the clutch with the game on the line.

Davis's catch and tears of joy reminded 49er fans everywhere of Terrell Owens' catch of Steve Young's pass against the Green Bay Packers in the final seconds of a Wild Card game in 1998.  TO blubbered uncontrollably afterwards, which was the last time anyone saw his endearing, humble side.  After that, it was all braggadocio and self-promotion.  Noman hopes that Davis knows it's better to be loved than to be a pariah.

Today's game was compared afterwards to the NFC title game between the 49ers and the Dallas Cowboys played nearly 30 years ago to the date.  (Noman was there, and lists that contest in his bio as the happiest non-family moment of his non-life.)

In terms of theater, this one was more dramatic because of the back-and-forth lead changes in the final minutes that lasted for two rounds: four lead changes in the final five minutes.  In terms of meaning, however, that one is tough to be beat.  The Saints don't have the history of tormenting the 49ers the way the Cowboys did throughout the 1970's and up until that 1981 season.

Today's winning pass to Davis, however, reminded Noman most of Joe Montana's strike to John Taylor to win Super Bowl XXIII in 1989.  A slicing dart to the post--touchdown!

The enigmatic Alex Smith answered his critics by driving his team down the field in the final minutes of the game when behind not just once, but twice!  He couldn't get much going for most of the game.  But, he did when all the chips were in the pot--a trait he exhibited in several games this season.

The 49ers defense was great.  They hit people hard, covered superlatively for most of the game, and harried the indomitable Drew Brees, who looked uncomfortable all day.

Donte Whitner laid a hit on Pierre Thomas that knocked the Saints second-leading rusher out cold, and caused a fumble near the goal line on New Orleans' opening drive.  It was a bone-rattling tackle that set the tone for the game, and sent a message to the favored team.

In keeping with a season-long trend, he 49ers forced 5 turnovers, and committed only 1.  Its special teams were superb as usual, but not dominant.

The defense eventually succumbed to the relentless Brees, who reminded Noman of nobody more than the Terminator.  He kept coming and coming and coming all game long--throwing 63 passes, 4 of them for touchdowns--shaking off 2 interceptions to throw for his usual 400+ (almost 500) yards.

Thankfully, by then, Smith and the 49er offense were primed for heroics.  

Towards the end, this game reminded Noman of a title bout in which boxers stand toe-to-toe in the ring and trade haymakers that would fell a mere mortal: Ali-Frazier; Ward-Gatti, for instance.

Among the vanquished, Darren Sproles deserves special recognition.  He looked fantastic in the Saints' recent games, but was beaten into submission early in this one.  He seemed gun shy from the punishment he received each time he touched the ball, and even fumbled a punt.  But, he got in synch late in the game, and struck for a scintillating 44 yard touchdown scamper with 4:11 remaining in the game.  After a subsequent touchdown, he hauled in a critical two-point conversion.  Hats off to a competitor.

Surprisingly, Michael Crabtree didn't show up on the 49ers side.  He caught a 4-yard TD pass early in the game, but disappeared thereafter.  Perhaps he was double-temaed, and threw unheralded devastating blocks.  The 49ers could have used his moves and hands, though.  He dropped a couple of catchable passes that hurt the offense, which needed to put a drive together in order to keep the ball away from Brees, and to give the defense a rest.  Without Crabtree, they couldn't, until the glorious end.

Congratulations 49ers, and thanks for the thrill!  It was a game for the ages, especially because the Saints--who routinely win these slugfests, including a Monday night heart-stopper in San Francisco in 2010--were knocked out in the final round by a team that is more boxer than puncher.

Noman's condolences to Saints fans, whose team was spectacular.

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