In leading San Francisco to consecutive touchdown drives against New Orleans late, including the game-winning 14 yard TD pass to tight-end Vernon Davis, Alex Smith made sure that his first playoff game will be one to remember.
As he wrote his own chapter in 49er lore, would it be wise to assume that Smith is also making strides toward stepping out of shadow of Aaron Rodgers?
While Rodgers led Green Bay to the Superbowl last season, his 3rd as a starter, Smith, already labeled a bust, was preparing to work under Jim Harbaugh, his 3rd head coach since 2005 when San Francisco made him the number 1 overall pick in the draft.
Smith and Rodgers will forever be linked by that day, not that either of them could have really helped it. It could have turned out differently had Matt Leinart, the ordained #1 pick, not chosen to return to USC for his senior year.
That decision pushed Smith and Rodgers to the forefront, sparking off a "Peyton Manning/Ryan Leaf" type of debate. Two possible franchise QBs, but whom to pick?
Rodgers flew under the radar before finding a home at Cal under Jeff Tedford, a coach notorious for turning for turning a few QBs into 1st round picks. In two seasons, Rodgers helped put Cal on the football map, and his lone incompletion during a showdown against USC saw the Golden Bears miss out on a shot at the national title in 2004.
Smith turned a few heads while running Urban Meyer's "spread offense" to near perfection at Utah. The Utes finished 12-0 after a 35-7 rout over Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl, paving the way for future "BCS Busters" in Boise State, TCU and Hawaii.
Newly hired 49ers coach Mike Nolan, a strong personality, did not feel like he and Rodgers would co-exist, and we all know that happened next; Smith was the first player off the board, while Rodgers remained in the "green room" for what seemed like forever and a day before Green Bay came calling.
As if the pressures of being the 1st overall pick weren't enough, Smith endured a revolving door of coordinators, injuries, and a head coaching change. Meanwhile on a frozen tundra somewhere, Rodgers bid his time behind Brett Favre before seamlessly assuming the reins.
While the streets of Green Bay were littered in confetti as they toasted their new hero, San Francisco's decision to choose Smith was revisited under a microscope. Analysts started make parallel comparisons to the organization's decision (and others too, for that matter) to pass on Tom Brady (a San Mateo native, who also happened to be a lifelong Niners fan) in the 2000 draft.
All Brady has done so far is win 3 Superbowls (2 of them as MVP), a couple of league MVP awards and a earn a few pro-bowl selections; the typical stuff that you'd expect from a QB drafted in the 6th round. And as long as the 49ers languished and the Packers flourished, Smith was condemned to live in the shadow of his counterpart.
Smith however appears to have finally come alive in his first season under Jim Harbaugh. This has been his best season thus far, both personally and statistically. Under Harbaugh's system, Smith only needs to be effective, not flashy; just like his days under Meyer.
And when the moment was at hand, when his team needed him to be THAT guy, and lead THAT drive just like Joe Montana and Steve Young had done (okay, throw Jeff Garcia in there if you want), Alex Smith rose to the occasion.