SAN FRANCISCO, CA - JANUARY 14: Alex Smith #11 of the San Francisco 49ers runs in for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints during the fourth quarter of their NFC Divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park on January 14, 2012 in San Francisco, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
This was the game to watch on Saturday. For the defensive minded 49ers, it was a huge game from QB Alex Smith that was the key to their victory.
What I saw from the 49ers
The Saints offense was very good, and the 49ers had trouble stopping them throughout the game. But the 49ers did an excellent job of forcing five turnovers (two on special teams). They only scored 13 points off of those turnovers, but on the Saints first possession, S Donte Whitner forced a fumble of RB Pierre Thomas near the goal line that took some more points off the board. Their defense rushed only three to five guys at Drew Brees, and DE Justin Smith and LB Aldon Smith were excellent (2 sacks and 9 QB hits combined).
For some reason, Jim Harbaugh decided to keep their best receiver, TE Vernon Davis, in to pass block a lot. Then in the fourth quarter, they realized they should unleash him. The 49ers had 221 of their 407 yards in the fourth quarter and Davis caught the game winning touchdown pass.
What I saw from the Saints
Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. It was remarkable that the Saints were able to stay in this game when they committed five turnovers. Their offensive line has three Pro Bowl players on it, but they had a lot of trouble in pass protection. However, that poor pass protection didn't necessarily slow their offense down or directly lead to turnovers. Brees's first interception came when he had plenty of time to throw. In the end, their offense scored four touchdowns and gave their team every chance to win.
The Saints defense was blitzing everyone (I saw as many as seven guys rushing Alex Smith) but that aggressive scheme also worked against them. The 49ers took advantage of an overload blitz to the right side to run Alex Smith on a designed sweep to the left side for a touchdown with just over two minutes to go in the game. They did a pretty good job of keeping the 49ers offense in check, except for TE Vernon Davis, who killed them with 180 receiving yards (nearly half of their total offense) and two touchdowns.
It's been a great season for the Saints, but now it's the 49ers who will play in the NFC Championship game.