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."
The Niners were No. 1 in the NFL in stopping the run during the season and didn't allow a rushing TD on Saturday after the Saints scored three on the ground in a 45-28 win over the Detroit Lions in the Superdome in last weekend's wild-card round.
The Saints produced a playoff-record 626 yards against the Lions, with Brees throwing for 466 yards while completing 33 of 43 passes.
"I had figured coming into this game they would feel like, 'Let's keep everything in front of us, let's not give up big plays and obviously do a good job against the rush and try to put them in third-and-long situations,'" Brees said. "They did, yet again, a great job stopping the run in a lot of cases which we felt like in order to really get chunks, we would have to throw it. Obviously that's a great defense. It's one of the best defenses in the league."
Goldson was re-signed to a one-year contract as a free agent in August to complement newcomers and fellow defensive backs Whitner and Carlos Rogers. Against the Saints, Goldson had a team-leading 11 tackles to go with the first-quarter interception and two passes defensed. Bowman also made 11 tackles, 10 of those solo.
"We got some spectacular stops," Harbaugh said. "On third down, I thought they were outstanding. Five takeaways in the game. I know the special teams contributed to that as well. Very opportunistic today. Got pressure on their quarterback. Made plays on the ball, and made them when they were there to be made. Our guys in the secondary made them. It was a terrific job by our defense, once again. You just love the way they play. You love the way they compete. Love how hard they work on the field."
The 49ers sacked the record-setting Brees three times, including rookie Aldon Smith's pounding for an 11-yard loss on third down in the first quarter. All-Pro defensive tackle Justin Smith brought Brees to the ground for a 9-yard loss in the third quarter and Ahmad Brooks added a fourth-quarter sack on which Brees lost 7 yards.
"We wanted to come out and play our style of football, which is playing physical, being a great tackling team, and playing with good fundamentals which has carried us all year," Fangio said. "We just wanted to play the way we've played all year, particularly starting early in the game."
Whitner definitely did his part.
"I told myself that I was going to hit anything moving today and that I was going to be extremely physical, even if I hit my own guys," he said. "Luckily, I didn't hit too many of my own guys."