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The long-last vindication of Alex Smith

It's taken just one year for Jim Harbaugh to undo nearly a decade's worth of missteps and restore the San Francisco 49ers back to prominence.

But for the quarterback who helped steer the previously-fallen franchise to its first NFC Championship Game appearance since the 1997 season, the road to validation has been anything but a short and smooth trip.

Alex Smith hadn't envisioned the wait to experiencing one of the pinnacle moments of the life of an NFL player -- relishing in the ecstasy of playoff victory -- would take nearly seven full years, nor could have anybody connected with the 49ers back when the organization made the former University of Utah standout a controversial first overall selection of the 2005 draft.

It would be the last time in quite some time that both Smith and the Niners were associated with being at the top. A chaotic combination of injuries, coaching instability and a damaged psyche had turned the mild-mannered triggerman from promising prospect to colossal bust, and the gradual rise to stardom of Aaron Rodgers -- taken 23 spots behind Smith in that same draft and a local favorite from his exploits at nearby Cal-Berkeley -- further reinforced the prevailing sentiment that then-personnel director Scot McCloughan had made one of the egregious errors in judgement in recent memory.

McCloughan wouldn't be around for San Francisco's meteoric turnaround under the boundlessly-spirited Harbaugh, having been removed from his post in the 49ers' latest administrational overhaul following the 2009 season, but he too received a measure of redemption when Smith and tight end Vernon Davis -- the first pick of McCloughan's second draft class of 2006 -- teamed up to create one of the most dramatic events for a franchise renowned for producing periods of postseason poignancy.

The 14-yard connection that capped San Francisco's heart-stopping 36-32 win over the more publicly-acknowledged New Orleans Saints in Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoffs should also serve as the play that shatters the dreaded stigma that Smith has been forced to bear all throughout his star-crossed tenure as a professional.

Clearly galvanized by Harbaugh's positive energy -- a complete contrast to the confidence-sapping methods of maniacal predecessor Mike Singletary -- and the stress-relieving scenario of having the starter's role all to himself, Smith delivered by far his best season in helping the 49ers become this year's overnight sensation. The cerebral 27-year-old eclipsed the 3,000-yard passing mark for the first time in his career, while his 1.1 percent interception rate was the best in the NFL and third-lowest in league history.

Yet despite those overall solid numbers, Smith still ranked at best a distant third to his team's ultra-opportunistic defense and Harbaugh's culture-changing leadership in the credit department when assessing San Francisco's sudden shift from 6-10 also-ran in Singletary's swan song to a 14-win powerhouse that's now one game away from an unforeseen Super Bowl trip. His once-soiled reputation may have been substantially repaired, but Smith continued to carry a label that no quarterback wants to wear -- that of a game manager.

But when a defense that had been so good at warding off the Herculean challenge of the ever-explosive Saints for most of the afternoon finally broke in the game's furious final minutes, the 49ers needed Smith to be more than a mere caretaker.

And the young man who had endured seven years of nearly every imaginable hardship, everything from a revolving door of play-callers (the Niners are on their seventh offensive coordinator since drafting Smith), a career-threatening shoulder injury and several justified benching, was more than ready for the task.

Smith came through with a pair of throws that fell into the category of world- class on the thrilling game-deciding drive, dropping in a perfect deep strike to Davis for a 47-yard gain before skillfully threading the needle to his beastly tight end for the go-ahead score with a mere nine seconds to spare on the game clock. He also had a nifty 28-yard touchdown run with just over two minutes left that briefly put San Francisco in front before New Orleans quickly responded.

"Might be time to give Alex a little credit, huh?," Harbaugh quipped in his postgame press conference.

Davis, another who's been through the lean years, also raised his game to the next level to assist in the 49ers' first playoff win since 2002. The determined sixth-year pro racked up an astounding 180 yards and two touchdowns on seven catches to break Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow's 30-year-old postseason record for receiving yards by a tight end.

"I'm so glad for [Smith] and Vernon, the guys who've been here a long time," said Niners special-teams ace Blake Costanzo. "It's a tribute to their success."

DIVISIONAL ROUND QUICK HITS

With the exception of New England's obliteration of the grossly-overmatched Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos, turnovers were the principal theme of this past weekend's matchups. The 49ers' trademark of forcing and capitalizing on mistakes continued in Saturday's rousing victory over New Orleans, in which the NFC West champs took advantage of five Saints giveaways, while both the Giants and Ravens induced four takeaways to land spots in their respective conference title games with wins on Sunday.

Top-seeded Green Bay's stunning 37-20 loss to resurgent New York -- an outcome that wasn't even as close as the final score indicated -- offered the latest example of a team ramping down the intensity at the end of the regular season once its playoff positioning was secured and paying the price. After not committing more than two turnovers in any game while building their sensational 15-1 record, the Packers had four against the Giants. Quarterback Aaron Rodgers also didn't seem as sharp in the MVP candidate's first outing since Christmas, and poor tackling by his team's problematic defense also played a big part in Green Bay extending the strange streak of defending Super Bowl champions not winning in the playoffs the following season to six consecutive years.

Hands-down winner of the Divisional Round's Bonehead of the Week award goes to Houston wide receiver Jacoby Jones for his inexplicable decision to field a Baltimore punt near his own goal line. His subsequent first-quarter fumble set up an easy Ravens' touchdown that proved to be critical to the Texans' 20-13 defeat, and three interceptions from rookie quarterback T.J. Yates were fatal blows as well to a Houston squad that dominated Baltimore across both lines of scrimmage for the majority of the day.

Sure seemed like the time off helped the Patriots overcome their late-season issues of starting slow. New England put up a pair of touchdowns in the opening nine minutes of its emphatic 45-10 trouncing of the Broncos, and five of Tom Brady's playoff record-tying six scoring passes came prior to intermission as the Pats roared out to a overwhelming 35-7 advantage. And even though the pass- deficient Broncos weren't really a true test, New England's maligned defense did look as good as it has all season.

Finally, a little food for thought for the wagering population. Six of the eight games held over the past two weeks have gone over the expected total, and this year's playoffs nearly became the first since the 1970 merger in which the home team prevailed all throughout the initial two rounds. The Giants have been the lone entry to win on the road so far in this tournament.

THE FINAL FOUR AT A GLANCE

Baltimore at New England (Sunday, 3:00): Patriots have won six of their seven lifetime meetings with Baltimore, but the Ravens' lone triumph in the series occurred in a 2009 AFC First-Round Playoff clash at Gillette Stadium in which Baltimore rushed for a whopping 234 yards and intercepted Brady three times en route to a 33-14 verdict. New England's last three victories over the Ravens have all been by six or less points.

N.Y. Giants at San Francisco (Sunday, 6:30): These teams played one another to the wire at Candlestick Park back on Nov. 13, with the 49ers holding on for a 27-20 decision after coming up with a fourth-down stop at their own 10-yard line with under a minute left. History will be on San Francisco's side in this one, as the home team has won six of the seven all-time postseason bouts between the two and the NFC has sent a different representative to the Super Bowl in each of the last 10 seasons (the Giants went in 2007, while the Niners haven't been there since 1994).