Heart-stopper 49ers thriller

  • Tarell Brown runs back an interception. San Francisco 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints 36-32 on Saturday, January 14, 2012.

The roar of the Candlestick Park crowd was so loud and sustained Saturday it was like a low-flying jet. And when the San Francisco 49ers mounted a thrilling last-minute drive to defeat the favored New Orleans Saints, 36-32, the sound drowned out the helicopters circling overhead.

"I almost have no voice left," Erin Williams, 44, of Santa Rosa said after the home team returned to the NFL playoffs for the first since 2002, earning a berth in next week's NFC Championship game -- one step away from Super Bowl XLVI.

"What a game," said Williams, who provided friends with a steady stream of Facebook game updates. "It was a little scary at the end."

San Francisco 49ers vs. New Orleans Saints


In what was one of the most remarkable wins in the franchise's 65-year history, the team thrust itself back into the ranks of the NFL elite on the strength and leadership of much-maligned quarterback Alex Smith, who abruptly established himself as a big-time, big-game winner.

In the process, the 49ers ended nine years of ignominy as NFL bottom feeders.

The game had echoes of the 1981 season playoffs when "The Catch" -- a touchdown pass from a young Joe Montana to Dwight Clark -- sealed a win over the Dallas Cowboys and heralded the transformation of a downtrodden franchise into a juggernaut that was to win five Super Bowl titles before slipping into mediocrity, and worse.

"Relieved," is the way Erin's husband, Scott Williams, 45, summed up his feelings after the lead changed hands four times in the last 4 minutes and 2 seconds. The high-powered Saints went up by three points with a minute and a half to go before the 49ers clinched it on a 14-yard touchdown pass from Smith to tight end Vernon Davis with 9 seconds left in the game.

The Williams, season ticket holders, were elements in the playoff fever ecosystem that formed early in the stadium's parking lot before Saturday's faceoff.

It was a sea of drifting barbecue smoke, beer, pina coladas and goblets of wine. Blaring hip-hop, rock 'n' roll, sports radio and a live, calypso-style brass band filled the air. Red jerseys rushed like sand in a surf of pre-game football frenzy.

"Awesome," said Walt Kehr, 51, of Petaluma, whose crew of 49er faithful began arriving at the stadium at 8 a.m. Soon venison was on a grill and predictions were being made.

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