49ers edge out Saints

Vernon Davis (49ers) celebrates game-winning touchdown

Alex Smith and Vernon Davis combined in the closing seconds to hand the San Francisco 49ers a 36-32 play-off victory over the New Orleans Saints.

The 49ers put in a solid defensive display to keep their opponents in check for much of the game but could have surrendered the match in a sensational last five minutes.

First Darren Sproles put the Saints in front for the first time following a 44-yard catch and run, but Smith responded by charging 28 yards for a touchdown to hand his side the advantage with just over two minutes remaining.

The lead switched again as Drew Brees put the Saints in the lead but Smith had the final say, finding Davis with a 14-yard touchdown pass with nine seconds on the clock.

The disciplined 49ers had enjoyed a 17-0 lead at one stage but with New Orleans pushing back hard a tight finish was inevitable.

Fast start

Touchdown passes from Smith to Davis and Michael Crabtree in the first quarter gave the home side an early 14-0 lead.

The Saints made an error-strewn start, fumbling twice in the first quarter either side of a Brees’ interception to present their opponents with regular short fields.

The first of three field goals from David Akers extended San Francisco’s lead to 17-0 before the Saints belatedly found their range.

Brees, who set a regular-season record of 5,476 passing yards, found Marques Colston and Graham for touchdowns in the second quarter and was driving for the go-ahead score when he was picked off for the second time.

An exchange of field goals, two from Akers sandwiching a single John Kasay effort, gave the 49ers a 23-17 lead with just over seven-and-half minutes remaining.

And then the fun really started with the lead changing hands on four occasions, Davis’ grab under pressure over the middle finally settling matters.

The 49ers, back in the play-offs after nine years on the outside under the stewardship of first-year head coach Jim Harbaugh, will play the winner of Sunday’s New York Giants versus Green Bay Packers match.