- Associated Press - Saturday, January 14, 2012

SAN FRANCISCO — What a way to celebrate the 30-year anniversary of “The Catch.”

Joe Montana to Dwight Clark then.

Alex Smith to Vernon Davis now.

Smith completed a 14-yard touchdown pass to Davis with 9 seconds left just after Drew Brees had put the high-powered Saints ahead, and resurgent San Francisco capitalized on five New Orleans turnovers for a thrilling 36-32 playoff victory Saturday.

“This is big for us,” Davis said. “It’s history. It’s legendary.”

Smith ran for a 28-yard TD with 2:11 left and threw another scoring pass to Davis in the first quarter. Coach Jim Harbaugh’s NFC West champions (14-3) proved that a hard-hitting, stingy defense can still win in the modern, wide-open NFL by holding off one of league’s most dynamic offenses.

Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left and the Saints seemed poised to rally from a 17-point deficit when Smith and Davis delivered once more.

San Francisco triumphed in its first playoff game in nine years and will move on to face the New York Giants or defending champion Green Bay Packers, who play Sunday. A win by the Giants would give the 49ers the home field.

Brees came up big down the stretch just as he did throughout a record-setting season, also hitting Darren Sproles for a 44-yard TD with 4:02 remaining — one of Sproles‘ 15 catches for 119 yards.

The 49ers also showed that defense can still dominate in the days of big passers like Brees.

With Donte Whitner bringing the bruising hits and Dashon Goldson, Patrick Willis and their defensive mates pressuring Brees and forcing turnovers from every angle, surprising San Francisco is a win away from returning to the Super Bowl for the first time since capturing the proud franchise’s fifth championship after the 1994 season.

Brees, whose team was coming off consecutive 600-yard games, completed 40 of 63 passes for 462 yards and four touchdowns and was sacked three times. He also threw two interceptions, his first in the postseason in five years, and New Orleans (14-4) fell short again in its quest to get back to the Super Bowl after winning it all two years ago. The Saints are still searching for the first postseason road victory in franchise history after falling to 0-5.

How far these 49ers have come since that 24-3 trouncing they took back in August at the Superdome in the teams’ exhibition opener. Now, Harbaugh’s “Who’s got it better than us? No-body!” group is drawing comparisons to the good ol’ days of Montana, Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott and Steve Young. And of course, Dwight Clark, who came through with “The Catch” to beat Dallas in the NFC title game on Jan. 10, 1982.

All-Pro David Akers, the Niners’ most experienced playoff veteran whose 44 field goals set a single-season record, kicked three more when it mattered most — from 25, 41 and 37 yards.

The underdog 49ers made the big plays on both sides of the ball and on special teams.

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