San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis, center, is greeted by quarterback… (John G. Manglo / EPA )
SAN FRANCISCO — Move over, Joe Montana to Dwight Clark.
Scoot aside, Steve Young to Terrell Owens.
Make room for The Catch 3.0.
San Francisco's Alex Smith fired a 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with nine seconds remaining Saturday, lifting the San Francisco 49ers to a 36-32 victory over the New Orleans Saints in a wild divisional playoff game at Candlestick Park.
A defensive gem of a game transformed into a shootout in the final minutes, with a series of rapid-fire touchdowns -- four in the final 4 minutes 2 seconds.
None was bigger than the last, when Smith dropped back quickly and fired a dart to Davis at the goal line in the middle of the field, unleashing the biggest 49ers celebration in more than a decade.
"I got the window and I cut it loose," Smith said. "Vernon made a great play, in traffic, getting hit as he catches it. He deserves all the credit."
There were plenty of backslaps to go around for a team making its first playoff appearance since 2002, a franchise with a new coach and downtrodden quarterback, coming off a 6-10 season. The 49ers are one win away from the Super Bowl and will play the winner of Sunday's game between the New York Giants and Green Bay Packers for the right to represent the NFC on the biggest stage.
"Live or die, and we live, and we move on in spectacular fashion," 49ers Coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I'm very proud of our football team."
The Saints were favored by 31/2 points, the first visiting team to be favored in a divisional game since the 1996 season, when Dallas got the nod over host Carolina. (Like the Saints, the Cowboys lost.)
Saints Coach Sean Payton called Saturday's thriller "kind of an unbelievable game, the way it went back and forth."
"Obviously, it's a disappointing game to lose, and we recognize the finality of it," said Payton, whose team had won nine in a row. "To go through the momentum swings that we had, and we had our opportunities. Again, we credit San Francisco for making one more play than us to win a tough game."
Perhaps the seeds of victory were planted Friday night at the hotel where the 49ers traditionally stay before home games.
"Last night in our highlight video we showed some clips of all the history-making playoff games," 49ers tackle Joe Staley said. "At the end of the video they said, 'History's made in the playoffs,' and I felt like today was one of those ESPN Classic games. You'll see it on tomorrow."
Smith's final pass capped a dizzying flurry of touchdowns that started when New Orleans running back Darren Sproles caught a short pass and weaved his way 44 yards to the end zone with 4:02 left. That gave the Saints their first lead of the game, 24-23, and looked like it might have been enough in a game so dominated by defensive play.
But the 49ers weren't done. Not even close. They answered with an 80-yard drive that consumed two minutes to move into field-goal range. They had third and three from the Saints' 23 with 2:18 left when they were flagged for having 12 men in the huddle.
Pushed back five yards, the 49ers surprised the Saints with a keeper around the left side, with key blocks from Staley and receiver Kyle Williams that sprung Smith. The quarterback dashed untouched down the sideline for a 28-yard touchdown with 2:11 left.
Just before that play, Smith walked over and spoke to Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman.
"Coach Roman as we were talking kind of mentioned that one," Smith said. "Him and Coach Harbaugh were kind of debating that, and I loved [that play call], so I kind of jumped on it. . . . I like that QB run stuff. It adds a little dimension for us."
So with a little more than two minutes to play, the 49ers had all the momentum, and -- after their conversion run failed -- a 29-24 lead.
The Saints had an answer, and a quick one. They moved 88 yards in four plays, reclaiming the lead, 32-29, with a 66-yard pass from Drew Brees to Jimmy Graham with 1:37 to play, and a two-point conversion pass to Sproles. It was a punch to the gut of everyone wearing red -- and there was a sea of them -- in the crowd of 69,732.
But that set the stage for history, a seven-play, 85-yard drive that will be burned into the minds of many who witnessed it. Davis, who made the winning catch, made another huge play on that drive: a 47-yard gain with 31 seconds remaining that put the 49ers in field-goal range to tie.
They never needed to attempt that kick.
Davis' touchdown grab rekindled memories of other huge receptions by 49ers on their home turf -- "The Catch" by Clark to beat Dallas in the NFC title game after the 1981 season, and "The Catch II" by Owens to beat Green Bay in a wild-card game in the 1998 season.
"I know there was The Catch," Harbaugh said. "I don't know what you're going to call this -- The Throw. The Throw and Catch."
Whichever, it was the play that launched a million camera clicks and cellphone flashes. People know history when they see it.