By Simon Evans
(Reuters) - Quarterback Alex Smith put aside lingering doubts about his ability with a memorable performance on Saturday to guide the San Francisco 49ers past the New Orleans Saints 36-32 and into next week's NFC Championship game.
Forget the numbers, although 299 yards for three touchdown passes and a rushed touchdown is not to be sniffed at against the Saints, it was the way he handled the pressure that impressed most about the player once labelled a 'bust'.
Seattle-born Smith, the first round, number one draft pick by the 49ers in 2005, has struggled to live up to the expectations that come with being a franchise-defining selection and came in for plenty of criticism from pundits and fans over the years.
On Saturday, he emerged triumphant from a spectacular fourth quarter shootout where he ran in a touchdown himself with a sweeping 28-yard run only to see the Saints respond with a touchdown of their own to grab the lead.
Then, with the pressure on in the final seconds, Smith delivered a laser-guided pass to Vernon Davis in the end-zone to win the game with the fourth change of lead in a dramatic final four minutes.
"Alex played really boldly, it might be time to give him a little credit, it was a spectacular performance," said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh who in his first season in the league has orchestrated a remarkable turnaround for a team which had a 6-10 record last year.
Key to that change in fortunes has been the injection of belief the 27-year-old Smith has received from his coach and team mates.
"The thing I feel so much different to years past is the sideline, the sideline atmosphere is so different, " he said.
"When bad things happen, when plays get made against us ... the guys are just so confident."
Smith has earned the hard way the respect of team mates like Pro Bowl linebacker Patrick Willis, who said the way the quarterback led his team to their first Conference final since 1997, spoke volumes about his character.
"It just shows he has the will to never quit. I've been here for a while with him and seen some of the things said about him," said Willis.
"To see him playing the way he's played this year, sticking with it, particularly when most would have given up and gone somewhere else ... he stayed and I think God's rewarded him now. I'm happy he is our quarterback and doing what he is doing."
That confidence was certainly evident in the way Smith handled the winning play with 14 seconds left on the clock.
The well-rehearsed pass to Davis, who had two touchdowns and 180 yards receiving, the most for a tight end in any post-season game, was executed with ice-cool composure and impressive precision and timing.
"I knew it was coming, we had rehearsed it all week in fact, Alex knew right away that once I got to 12 or 14 yards I'd plant my outside foot and look for the ball - and it worked. I had confidence in myself and I had confidence in Alex," he said.
(Editing by Tony Jimenez. To query or comment on this story email firstname.lastname@example.org)