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 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 huge for us," Davis said. "It's history, legendary, anything you can describe."
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 and score one more time than one of the league's most dynamic offenses.
Brees completed a 66-yard touchdown to tight end and former University of Miami basketball star Jimmy Graham with 1:37 left. The Saints seemed poised to rally from an early 17-point deficit until Smith and Davis delivered once more.
Their highlight show came in the opposite end zone from where Clark caught a stretched-out 6-yard pass from Montana on Jan. 10, 1982, to beat Dallas in the NFC Championship Game. Saturday's winner by a leaping Davis — who plowed over a defender as he landed — came in the same end zone where Steve Young hit Terrell Owens for a winning TD with 3 seconds left in a 30-27 wild-card win over the Packers in the 1999 playoffs. T.O.'s grab became known as "The Catch II."
How about this one?
"You've got to call it the grab," Davis said of his play. "We were down. I had to make it happen to take my teammates where we want to go."
San Francisco won its first playoff game in nine years and moved on to face the Giants or defending champion Packers, who meet today.
The 49ers pulled off another last-second win in a season full of them. San Francisco came from behind for five victories in the regular season, four on the road.
Davis, who wept on the sideline afterward, finished with seven catches for 180 yards. It was the most yards receiving by a tight end in a playoff game.
Brees came up big down the stretch just as he did throughout a record-setting season, hitting Darren Sproles for a 44-yard TD with 4:02 remaining — one of Sproles' 15 catches for 119 yards.
"It stings right now because of the expectation level that we had coming into this tournament and understanding that if we win here we're into the NFC Championship Game and anything can happen," Brees said. "That's tough. Tough to swallow at this point."
Brees completed 40-of-63 for 462 yards and four touchdowns and was sacked three times. He also threw two interceptions, his first in the playoffs in five years.
"Kind of an unbelievable game the way it went back and forth," New Orleans coach Sean Payton said. "It's obviously a difficult game to lose."
The underdog 49ers made the big plays on both sides of the ball and on special teams.
"Guys were so confident, as long as we had time we had a shot," Smith said.