I have covered the NFL for 36 years now, reported live from the last 33 Super Bowls and witnessed literally hundreds of playoff games, and I have never seen a more impactful football game than the San Francisco 49ers' 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints. The image of Vernon Davis with tears streaming down his face and knees buckling as he nearly collapsed in the embrace of head coach Jim Harbaugh after scoring the winning touchdown and completing one of the great individual performances in playoff history will be remembered decades from now as one of the more indelible moments in NFL history.
Sure, there have been lots of great games through the years, and there will be more to come, and I'm sure many of you are lining up already to debate me about my instantly moving this one to the front of the line. Yet, beyond the Cinderella story of the 49ers' leap from NFL punch line to heavyweight title contender in five months, the accomplishments of Harbaugh in easily the most challenging season for a rookie coach in history, the remarkable rehabilitation of QB Alex Smith, the presence of the Saints' offensive juggernaut, and the four touchdowns and four lead changes in 3:53 of the fourth quarter, there was Vernon Davis proving, in the words of Vince Lombardi, "that any man's finest hour, the greatest fulfillment of all that he holds dear, is that moment when he has worked his heart out in a good cause and lies exhausted on the field of battle — victorious."
Surely, Harbaugh is the 2011 NFL Coach of the Year, and this game was more clear evidence of why. For any of you who may have thought these Niners were just another flash in the pan and that Harbaugh has been more lucky than good, you now have more evidence than you could possibly need to remove any reasonable doubt that both team and coach are the real deals. But while this game was proof of how good his club is and another clear vision of how firmly they've been molded in their coach's image, this game was far more about Justin Smith, his quarterbacking cousin (in name only), Davis and the rest of their teammates.
I'll pause here for just a moment to offer one more testimonial to a Saints club that had a record-breaking season and certainly played more than a supporting role in the heart-stopping closing scenes at Candlestick. This was not about the Saints going on the road or playing outdoors, obstacles they clearly overcame and which had nothing to do with the outcome. This was about a great team running into a greater one.
How many of you had absolutely no idea until this particular game that Justin Smith, the 11-year veteran out of Missouri, is one of the dominant defensive linemen in the NFL today, perhaps even the best at this particular moment in time? At various moments he lined up on each of the Saints' three Pro Bowl offensive linemen's noses and beat the stuffing out of all of them.
Is there one among us who thought, rather than San Francisco's defense being the difference should the 49ers win, it would be their constantly maligned quarterback outplaying the record-shattering Drew Brees? Far more than his numbers — 24-of-42, 299 yards, three TDs, 0 INTs, 103.2 passer rating, and one run for a 28-yard TD — it was Smith's athletic ability, poise and pinpoint accuracy on big throw after big throw that sent Brees home a loser.
Early in his six-year pro career, Davis was labeled an attitude problem and an underachiever. He was, in fact, the inspiration for Mike Singletary's sensational YouTube rant about certain players he "can't win with 'em, can't coach 'em, don't want 'em!" But to Singletary's credit it was that moment and his tutelage that seemed to turn Davis around and make him not just a Pro Bowl tight end, but a team leader and the emotional linchpin for this band of brothers in red and gold.
Davis' seven catches for 180 yards and two TDs were the main reasons his 49ers prevailed in this all-time classic, but it was that seminal moment, in which he laid bare all that lives inside of the true warrior at his moment of triumph, that I can't imagine any of us ever forgetting.