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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."

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.

"The number one defense against the number one offense, I think we're going to torch them," he said of the defensive-minded 49ers.

Like Kehr, the home team had the torch on Saturday, giving up a 17-point lead, then coming back twice in the waning minutes to win.

"It was a hell of a game," said Kehr, a season ticket holder for 25 years. "I haven't been to a game like it since '94," when the 49ers defeated the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship.

In Santa Rosa, there was an overflow, sea-of-red crowd at the Fifth Street Grill, where every touchdown, turnover or flub was greeted by shouts and groans that reverberated throughout the neighborhood.

"Long overdue," said Dan Hanes of Santa Rosa, referring to the 49ers return to the playoffs.

"Extremely exciting," said Elizabeth Grande of Santa Rosa. "After the Giants winning the World Series, it is the Niners' turn."

At Candlestick Park, the drama extended from near dawn to past dusk and took in novice football fans as well as old hands.

"It's definitely a different atmosphere," said Sonoma native Katie Horsfall, whose boyfriend this year introduced her to gridiron theatrics.

It was the atmosphere that is hoped for every year, and that has for too many years gone wanting, said Justin Birkhoff, 26, a Safari West animal keeper and tour guide. "It's what we look forward to," he said. "Every year we're supposed to be here and this year we finally are."

Garrett Lees, 45, of Santa Rosa saw the game as vindication for Smith, the 49ers quarterback.

"I think the monkey's off Alex's back," he said, referring to six years of less-than-stellar performances at the helm of bad teams. "I'm going to say that right here."

You can reach Staff Writer Jeremy Hay at 521-5212 or jeremy.hay@pressdemocrat.com. Staff Writer Bob Norberg contributed to this report.