Here are my divisional playoff grades for the Niners, who beat the Saints 36-32 and will play in the NFC Championship game next weekend.
Alex Smith: A+. Let’s get the negatives out of the way first – he didn’t play well in the middle of the game. Ok, now that we’ve established that, let’s talk about the positives. He made two plays to win the game. The first was the designed run around the left end – called QB9 in the Niners playbook. The second was the game-winning touchdown throw to Vernon Davis – Vernon Post. The first play reminds us why the Niners drafted Smith in the first place – he’s pretty quick for 6’4” quarterback. The second play showed us something we didn’t already know about Smith – he can make a precise, laser throw into a tight window when it counts. For the whole season the Niners played to put the game in their defense’s hands – remember the loss at home to the Cowboys when Harbaugh took a field goal instead of a penalty that would put his offense in the Dallas red zone. Well, Harbaugh didn’t have a choice in this one. He needed Smith to win this game and Smith came through.
No more calling Smith a junior game manager. He beat Drew Brees. Junior game managers can’t do that.
Offensive line: B. They gave up three sacks and struggled all game like they have all season at picking up blitzes on third and long. But they run blocked well enough, and Joe Staley made a key block on Alex smith’s 28-yard touchdown run in the second quarter.
Running backs: B. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter had average games for them, but Gore had a huge 42 yard run in the fourth quarter. In Gore and Hunter’s defense, they ran against eight and nine defenders in the box all game and still did pretty well. Gore’s long run came against ten box defenders. Both Gore and Hunter were good enough to keep the Saints defense worried about them and to keep the play action pass a dangerous weapon for Alex Smith.
Wide receivers: D. Ted Ginn Jr. hurt his knee and didn’t do much. Kyle Williams’ best play was a block on Alex Smith’s fourth quarter touchdown run. And Michael Crabtree seemed to drop pass after pass. After the game Jim Harbaugh talked about how great Vernon Davis is – especially because he played his best in the biggest game. This was in obvious contrast to Crabtree who played his worst when the Niners needed him the most.
Tight ends: A+. Like many of you guessed, Vernon Davis was the x-factor. Greg Roman had called plays for his star tight end sparingly all season long. I wondered if he was saving Davis – setting the table for him, if you will – until the playoffs. It seems like that was the case. Davis was the clear focal point of the Niners passing game, and he thrived, catching seven passes for 180 yards (not a typo, but a post season tight end record), plus two touchdowns. Harbaugh said the Saints were single covering him most of the game. I doubt the next team the Niners face uses that preposterous strategy.
Defensive line: B+. Justin and Aldon Smith combined to hit Drew Brees nine times. The whole line stuffed the Saints run game immediately. Still, they couldn’t get to Brees down the stretch when the secondary needed a boost.
Linebackers: B-. Darren Sproles and Jimmy Graham had great games – they’re great players. Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman combined for 19 tackles and did well to keep Sproles in front of them for the most part – he broke away once. They couldn’t do much with Graham – who can? Overall, it was not nearly their best performance, but an honorable one against such terrific offense.
Secondary: B. They held Drew Brees under 500 yards, which is something. They gave up big plays down the stretch, but they made equally big plays throughout the game. Donte Whitner knocked Pierre Thomas out of the game on the first series to save a touchdown and force a turnover. Dashon Goldson had eleven tackles. And Tarell Brown made a spectacular interception.
Special Teams: A+. Jim Harbaugh called the coverage unit the best in the business and he’s right. They forced one fumble and recovered two, and completely neutralized Sproles as a returner. David Akers was automatic and Andy Lee was good enough.
Coaching: B+. Halfway through the fourth quarter it seemed like Greg Roman’s conservative play calling was going to kill the Niners. He couldn’t figure out a good play call for third and long, and the offense scored six whole points in the second and third quarters. But the coaching staff completely redeemed themselves down the stretch. The two late touchdowns were perfect play calls. On the Alex Smith run it was obvious the Saints were going to overload blitz Anthony Davis and the right side of the Niners line – that’s what all teams do against the Niners in critical moments. So Alex Smith ran away from the blitz – around the left end into the end zone with no sweat. And then the touchdown throw – I’m sure the Saints and the rest of the stadium thought the Niners were going to go conservative and settle for the game-tying field goal – that’s been their M.O. all season. They went against their tendency and went for the touchdown and caught the Saints off guard. Finally Harbaugh showed confidence in his quarterback and his tight end, and they came through for him.