SAN FRANCISCO — With New Orleans poised to score on its opening possession, Donte Whitner delivered a crushing blow that knocked out running back Pierre Thomas and forced the first of five Saints turnovers.
San Francisco’s hard-hitting, opportunistic defense set the tone in the 49ers’ thrilling 36-32 playoff win the same way it has all season.
From Justin Smith and Aldon Smith harassing Drew Brees, to Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman shutting down the running game and Dashon Goldson making punishing hits and key plays from the secondary, the defense is the biggest reason for the resurgence in San Francisco that has the 49ers (14-3) back in the NFC championship game for the first time since the 1997 season.
An offensive show featuring four lead changes defined the final five minutes Saturday, capped by Alex Smith’s 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis with 9 seconds remaining. But Whitner got things going in the franchise’s first postseason appearance in nine years.
“It let the (Saints) offense know we were going to be physical all day,” Whitner said of the hit on Thomas, who left with a head injury and never returned.
Whitner was unfazed by his pass interference penalty moments earlier that briefly sent shaken-up tight end Jimmy Graham to the sideline. Whitner’s jarring, legal helmet-to-helmet hit on Thomas was a blow to the Saints’ psyche as well as their depth chart.
The 49ers defense has been so stingy this season they didn’t allow a 100-yard runner or a rushing touchdown until the second-to-last game of the year Dec. 24 at Seattle. Hall of Famer Ronnie Lott, part of plenty of top-notch defenses himself, has praised these men for not “giving up inches.”
The Niners, who will play at home against the New York Giants, had 38 takeaways during the regular season to only 10 turnovers. Their plus-28 turnover differential matched the 2010 Patriots for the second-best mark in NFL history since 1941.
They forced five more Saturday, and only had one turnover themselves.