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Manning threw for 330 yards and three touchdowns to stun the defending champion Packers last weekend at Lambeau Field.

49ers linebacker Patrick Willis has known Manning’s potential for years _ since their one-year stint as college teammates in 2003, the last time Willis had a winning season.

“As a freshman, I thought he was the greatest quarterback ever,” Willis said. “That was the best season I’d ever had in football. To see the things that he’s done, he’s won a Super Bowl. That’s the biggest accomplishment that we all try to go for, to win that. He’s done that. He led his team back to being one game closer to that.”

The 49ers forced five turnovers in beating the Saints, then watched Alex Smith shine at the end. On top of his game in the biggest of moments, at last. This is the Alex Smith the 49ers drafted over Aaron Rodgers nearly seven years ago.

“I always had confidence in Alex. He’ll make plays, he will,” Davis said. “And since Harbaugh stepped in, he didn’t do anything but help Alex, help Alex get better. And to me, Alex is still growing. He still has a lot of room to get better.”

Smith became one of five quarterbacks in playoff history to throw three touchdown passes without an interception and run for another, and he helped the 49ers become the first team in the NFL to score two lead-changing touchdowns in the final 3 minutes to win a playoff game, according to STATS LLC.

What a comeback road it’s been considering he has played for seven offensive coordinators in as many seasons, dealt with a shoulder injury that sidelined him and faced two head coaches questioning both his talent and toughness.

“You have to have thick skin,” said Young, who visited with Smith this week. “The guy has been through hell as far as quarterbacking. He’s been through quarterbacking hell where you have a different coordinator, different language. He was trying to describe it like learning French and then learning Spanish and learning Japanese and just learning every weird, new language and having to be held accountable without the support.

“And this year, all of a sudden, he gets all of the support and he feels like: `Geez, I feel like I’m doing less. I feel like it’s easier.’ But yet, now he’s doing remarkable things.”

Smith was ready to walk away after last season, a year that began with promise only to deteriorate in a hurry with an 0-5 start. The Niners fired offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye early, wound up 6-10 and fired coach Mike Singletary with one game left. The playoff drought reached eight years.

Even this season, Smith had his share of doubters _ even after ex-NFL quarterback Harbaugh came aboard as the new coach ready to guide him.

Smith passed for a career-best 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns with only five interceptions.

He seems unfazed with that not-so-complimentary “game manager” tag everybody put on him this season. Until his career-defining moments last weekend, Smith was known for doing just enough, nothing flashy.

“Well, he’s been doing that all year, the way he’s been leading this team, the way he’s been playing, it’s confidence,” defensive tackle Justin Smith said. “It rubs off on everybody. With what he’s been through here and the way he’s handled himself, it’s a good example for all the guys here in how to do it. Hopefully, he’s got his game-manager label or whatever that label is off of him. Just put baller on there.”