ASHBURN, Va. — The future Hall of Famer starred throughout the game and it didn’t matter. Alex Smith topped him. And it turned into one of the best moments of his career and a downer for the quarterback on the other side: Drew Brees.
The Washington Redskins would be happy to see history repeat itself Monday night. In 2011, Smith and the San Francisco 49ers won in a playoff duel vs. Brees and the New Orleans Saints in what became a pivotal moment in Smith’s career.
“Probably the biggest moment of his career,” said Redskins tight end Vernon Davis, who played a crucial role in that game for the 49ers. “It was the foundation of who he really was, who he really is today. … That was the point, ‘This is who I am. This is who I’m going to be from here on out.’”
It’s not as though Smith became a gunslinger after that 36-32 victory in the NFC divisional round. But he did show his capability in a clutch situation, helping turn that game into one of the more entertaining finishes of the past decade.
Brees threw for 462 yards, four touchdowns and two interceptions. Smith threw for 299 yards, three scores and no picks. In the fourth quarter, Smith completed 9-of-13 passes for 139 yards and a score. Both quarterbacks led three scoring drives in the fourth quarter.
“That’s the next step any quarterback wants,” Smith said of the playoff victory. “It’s one thing to win in the regular season, but a lot of us get graded on what you do in the postseason, what you do in the big moments.”
Alex Smith already has a memorable victory over Drew Brees on his resume. He’ll go for another one Monday night in New Orleans. Michael Zagaris/Getty Images
Smith saved his best for the big moment. He patiently drove the 49ers down the field, doing what he does best: taking what’s available. On a third down, he ran the ball in from 28 yards on a designed quarterback sweep around left end, giving the 49ers a five-point lead. Four plays later, Brees connected with tight end Jimmy Graham for a 66-yard score.
That’s when Smith took over again, with the 49ers trailing by three. A 47-yard catch-and-run to Davis set up the game-winning score. On third-and-4 from the Saints’ 14 with 14 seconds remaining, the easy call would have been a safe play to preserve a field goal attempt. Instead, Smith connected with Davis for a touchdown on a little in-route. It required guts and precision from Smith: He anticipated Davis’ cut behind the linebacker and in front of safety Roman Harper.
“You take a shot in there and luckily it turned out,” Smith said.
Davis was in tears on the sideline.
“That moment, ‘The Catch 3′ is what they call it, I was reminiscing back on when I was a kid,” Davis said. “As a kid, you always dream of playing in the pros and making that game-winning shot. … It was tears of joy. It was all the hard work I put in and those memories as a kid wanting to see it come to fruition, and it finally did, and it was like, ‘Wow, this is amazing.’ A game winner with my buddy Alex.”
Smith vs. Brees
Alex Smith is 1-3 in the regular season in games against Drew Brees, but won a playoff game after the 2011 season and has had a better passer rating in each of their last two matchups.
YEAR SMITH RATING BREES RATING RESULT
2006 48.2 92.3 Saints 34, 49ers 10
2007 70.9 136.8 Saints 31, 49ers 10
2010 82.2 108.9 Saints 25, 49ers 22
2011* 103.2 93.5 49ers 36, Saints 32
2016 126.0 110.3 Chiefs 27, Saints 21
Pro Football Reference
Smith is now with his third team after spending five years in Kansas City, and Brees remains with New Orleans, just 201 yards shy of breaking Peyton Manning’s all-time record for passing yards. But there’s a mutual admiration between Brees and Smith, who have worked out together at times in San Diego during offseasons.
“Every time I’ve been around him, I think the thing that jumps out is the attention to detail,” Smith said. “It’s easy to kind of, get relaxed, know you can roll it out there and be successful. I think the attention to detail that he continually has, day in and day out, even this late into his career, certainly stands out.”
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Brees returned the love.
“He’s probably one of my favorite guys in the league, quarterbacks to watch,” Brees said. “Just knowing him and knowing what type of guy he is and also knowing the road he traveled. He had to overcome a lot. He’s a tough guy. Extremely intelligent. Very talented. He’s gritty. He can do everything. He can throw the ball down the field; he can run the ball; he does the [run-pass option] stuff. He’s just extremely talented.”
The 49ers a year later traded Smith, who was injured for part of the 2012 season. But that 2011 season, and that game, marked a key moment in his career. His career passer rating through the 2011 season was 76.9. Since then, it’s 95.8. His total QBR was 44.2 before 2012 and 58.1 after.
“He’s always been a player with great poise, is accurate,” Saints coach Sean Payton said. “It was one of those legendary games. … He played exceptionally well.”
Said Davis: “Without Alex, we wouldn’t have won that game. His ability to stay in the game mentally was few and far between. To just put the team on his back the way he did, it was amazing. It was awesome.”
Contributing: ESPN New Orleans Saints reporter Michael Triplett