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 all day, 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 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 to 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."
"We've got a great defense. We feel like we can stop anyone," Bowman said. "When it's not working for our offense, it's our job to get the ball back for them as many times as we can. That's all it was. If those guys aren't doing well it's our job to pick it up. That's what a team is and I think we have a great one here."
First-year coach Jim Harbaugh brought defensive coordinator Vic Fangio along with him from Stanford when he was hired last January — and Fangio has developed his unit into one of the NFL's best.
"We like to think that we play defense the right way," Fangio said. "We play physical, we play with our hands. We run to the ball. We don't try and do anything too fancy, although we do have our changeups here and there. We try and play defense the old-fashioned, hard school way."
The Niners, who will either play at defending Super Bowl champion Green Bay next Sunday or 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.
San Francisco's determined defenders heard all week how difficult it would be to stop Brees and Co., knowing many figured they'd fail.
"We got tired of it throughout the week. They gave us no chance," Goldson said. "They kept talking about the Saints, the Saints, where they stand against us and what they were going to do. We ignored everything and focused on us and what we had to do to come win this game."
Goldson had six interceptions for the NFC West champions during the regular season, then his biggest yet Saturday. That first-quarter pick snapped Brees' NFL-record streak of 226 postseason passes without an interception dating to the NFC championship game against Chicago five years ago.
Tarell Brown had the other interception, while special teams standouts Blake Costanzo and Madieu Williams each forced a fumble.
"Our guys were humming. We were able to pry a couple out and that was big," Fangio said. "The interceptions were big also."
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