Originally posted on Football Nation  |  Last updated 1/15/12
The San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints led off the round of Divisional Playoff games with a battle that didn’t get decided until the final seconds. I mentioned at the start of my game preview that this could be the very best of the four games this weekend but the 49ers and Saints over-reached themselves.

34 points and four lead changes in the fourth quarter left 49ers’ fans elated, Saints’ fans devastated and every other football fan who watched this game appreciative of the classic they were witness to. Now that the pulse and breathing rates are beginning to return to normal, here are five things we learned.

1. The advice to go with your strengths is pretty good when your strengths are defense and creating turnovers.

It may not be easy believing that the 49ers’ defense put up much of a fight when looking at Drew Brees’ stat line of 462 yards passing and 93.5 passer rating but 169 yards of that total was achieved in the last seven minutes of the game in 13 attempts during the wild fourth quarter that both teams put together.

Until the last seven minutes of the game Brees had 293 yards passing with a 5.3 Real Yards per Attempt average and an 89.8 passer rating. That passer rating still isn't too bad statistically. The yards per attempt average would have had him keeping company with Mark Sanchez or Tavaris Jackson. If you thought Drew Brees’ name would have been mentioned in the same sentence with those two quarterbacks when the day began then you started your game preparation drinking a lot earlier than the rest of us.

One of the keys that are always given to stopping Drew Brees is get pressure on him and break up his timing with his receivers. The 49ers got pressure and sacked Brees three times but credit should go to their defensive backs. They did a great job staying with the Saints’ receivers and denying Brees his quick releases places to throw the ball.

The 49ers led the NFL during the regular season with a +28 turnover ratio and took advantage of that skill against New Orleans. The 49ers were +4 and picked up three of those in the first quarter. One was on the Saints’ first possession on the 49ers’ seven yard line that stopped what was turning into a certain scoring drive. An interception gave the 49ers excellent field position on the Saints’ 41 yard line that they turned into a touchdown. A fumble on the following kickoff turned into a David Akers 25 yard field goal and a 17-0 lead as the second quarter began. At that point it looked like the wheels had disintegrated off the Saints’ bus.

2. Drew Brees and the Saints have plenty of playoff experience and got that experience by not being a team that panics when a couple of things go wrong.

It’s not one of the games anyone will look back on as one of Drew Brees’ great performances but he’s still an incredible quarterback to watch in action. I watch him and get a feeling of what it would have been like to watch Michelangelo sculpt, or Mozart write an opera or Pabst brew beer.

The passes Drew Brees did complete were beautifully thrown balls placed in spots that only his receivers could get them. He dropped the 25 yard touchdown right into Marques Colston’s hands over very good pass coverage down the right sideline.

He can drive the ball downfield as fast as anyone in the game. It took only four plays in 34 seconds for the Saints to score the touchdown that put them back in the lead 32-29.

3. Give Alex Smith his due. He came up big when the 49ers needed him.

Alex Smith may not get his name mentioned on Sportscenter 160 times in an hour like Tim Tebow did last week after the victory over the Steelers but he had just as big an impact on the 49ers’ effort against the Saints.

It looked like the 49ers had blown a big chance when the where called for 12 men in the huddle after a Saints’ timeout with 2:18 left in the game. The 49ers were down 29-24 and the third and three situation turned into a third and eight. Smith came through with a sweep around left end behind a perfectly designed blocking scheme for a touchdown that put the 49ers back into the lead 29-24.

After the Saints took the 32-29 lead he got the ball back on the 49ers’ 15 yard line put together a lightning quick drive of his own. When he completed the 47 yard pass to Vernon Davis that put the ball at the Saints’ 20 yard line, the 49ers could have put the ball in position and let David Akers, their Pro Bowl placekicker, tie the game and send it to overtime. Instead Smith threw a perfectly placed ball on a line to Vernon Davis for 14 yards and the game winning touchdown.
Smith finished the game with 299 yards passing and a 103.2 passer rating.

4. Can we put this, “They scored too quickly” ridiculousness to bed once and for all?

When Smith swept around left end for his touchdown, the ‘Twitter-verse’ exploded with comment and concern that the 49ers had scored too early. Two minutes was like giving Drew Brees an extra quarter in an attempt to tie the game.

According to most opinions, Smith should have slid short of the goal line and given himself up to run more time. As it was, Brees had a little over two minutes two work with plus the two-minute warning and a timeout in an attempt to retake the lead. Brees did drive the ball right down the field and retake the lead but that’s beside the point.

When you’re trailing near the end of a game you take the points when you can get them. How much time is left is irrelevant! If Smith slides and gives up the play short of the goal line what’s to say the 49ers get the touchdown. This is the NFL, the other team is doing everything possible to stop you and they’re not going to let you get a touchdown just because you want to take a little time off the clock! What if there’s a fumble on the next play? What if Smith bobbles the next snap? Just because there’s a .01 percent chance of it happening doesn’t mean it can’t happen, ask Philip Rivers. Those same fans would be howling for Smith’s scalp if the 49ers ended up not being able to score in that situation.

As it turns out, Brees did have plenty of time. More than he needed actually. It took him 34 seconds to go 78 yards but there was no reaction anywhere that maybe Brees and the Saints scored too quickly. It’s a good thing Smith didn’t try to take a little more time off the clock on his previous possession. He used almost all of what he had left to get that winning score. If Smith didn’t lead that final touchdown drive would he be taking heat for, “scoring too quickly?” If so it would only be from the moron contingent of the fan base.

5. There should be no more doubt about the importance of a big, mobile tight end in the offense.
  It’s amazing that it’s taken as long as it has for offensive coordinators to discover that big, strong, mobile tight ends are a devastating weapon (paying attention Mike Martz). Jimmy Graham finished the game with five catches for 103 yards after having a big game last week against Detroit. Vernon Davis had seven catches for 180 yards and the 49ers don’t win the game without the effort he gave.
Outside linebackers don’t have the speed to keep up with a tight ends’ mobility if they draw the coverage. Cornerbacks have other responsibilities and using a safety to defend a tight end means a cornerback will be left with no inside or over-the-top help against a wide receiver. When a tight end does get the ball in the secondary they’re a load for a safety or cornerback to bring down.
Defenses will adapt to the new reality and it will be interesting to see which defensive coordinator solves it first and how. Maybe a slightly smaller, more mobile linebacker, a la Brian Urlacher on the outside or a bigger safety that has more underneath responsibility will be the move. Whatever it is, Vernon Davis will have to be game-planned for next week by either the Packers or Giants.

The game was one where you were elated for the 49ers and their fans for such an exciting victory and at the same time devastated for the Saints and their fans for being ready for the conference championship game and suddenly finding their season over. It truly was one of those games where you’re sorry there had to be a loser with the effort that both teams gave on the field. It’s time for the 49ers to get ready for the NFC Championship Game.
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