Saturday, 14 January 2012

Alex Smith saves best for last as 49ers trip Saints

San Francisco 49ers Pro Bowl cornerback Carlos Rogers doesn’t care about style points and reputations.

Heading into the NFC divisional playoff game Saturday, the New Orleans Saints boasted the league’s top offense and featured a record-breaking quarterback in Drew Brees.

“We got confidence in our players and our scheme and our team,” Rogers said. “We’re going to get up and challenge guys. They’re going to make plays, but they’re ­going to make them with us in their face.

“We’re not going to let them run free throughout our defense. We’re going to challenge them, and that’s what we did. We feel we can stop anyone.”

So if the Super Bowl-champion Green Bay Packers win Sunday, the 49ers won’t be intimidated to play at Lambeau Field. In a stirring 36-32 victory against the Saints at Candlestick Park, the 49ers highlighted a host of attributes befitting of a championship contender.

One from a bygone era.

They pounded the ground (143 rushing yards).

They generated turnovers (five takeaways).

And they displayed resilience (two clutch drives).

“That’s what we’ve been doing all year,” said running back Frank Gore, who had 89 rushing yards, including a 42-yarder in the fourth quarter. “As long as we play our brand of football, we can do anything we want.”

The Saints were the hottest team entering the weekend, their last loss coming in October. In the nine games since, Brees has posted dizzying statistics, thanks, in part, to taking just seven sacks.

While he completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards, Brees was intercepted twice, sacked three times and pressured 11 other instances.

“Obviously, they have a great defense; we knew that coming in,” said Saints tight end Jimmy Graham, who had two touchdown catches and 103 receiving yards. “We knew if push came to shove, if Drew had the ball in his hands at the end, we would score and we did.

“Unfortunately, we couldn’t stop them.”

That’s why the remaining playoff teams will take notice.

Alex Smith, once labeled a bust, played like an elite quarterback late in the game.

His 28-yard touchdown on a ­naked bootleg was a brilliant call on third-and-eight, but Smith couldn’t have been much more perfect when he took over on the final drive with 1:37 left and his team trailing 32-29. He completed 5 of 6 attempts for 85 yards, including a 47-yarder to Vernon Davis and a 14-yard touchdown on a post pass to the tight end to win the game.

“We have all the confidence in the world in [Smith], and it showed today,” receiver Kyle Williams said. “For everybody else who wants to dog him, the proof is in the pudding.”

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