NFC Championship Game, Giants Vs. 49ers: Alex Smith Finding Vindication

It's taken just one year for Jim Harbaugh to undo nearly a decade's worth of missteps and restore the San Francisco 49ers back to prominence. But for the quarterback who helped steer the previously-fallen franchise to its first NFC Championship Game appearance since the 1997 season, the road to validation has been anything but a short and smooth trip.

Alex Smith hadn't envisioned the wait to experiencing one of the pinnacle moments of the life of an NFL player -- relishing in the ecstasy of playoff victory -- would take nearly seven full years, nor could have anybody connected with the 49ers back when the organization made the former Utah Utes standout a controversial first overall selection of the 2005 draft.

The 14-yard connection that capped San Francisco's 36-32 win over the more publicly-acknowledged New Orleans Saints in Sunday's NFC Divisional Playoffs should also serve as the play that shatters the dreaded stigma that Smith has been forced to bear all throughout his star-crossed tenure as a professional.

Clearly galvanized by Harbaugh's positive energy -- a complete contrast to the confidence-sapping methods of maniacal predecessor Mike Singletary -- and the stress-relieving scenario of having the starter's role all to himself, Smith delivered by far his best season in helping the 49ers become this year's overnight sensation. The cerebral 27-year-old eclipsed the 3,000-yard passing mark for the first time in his career, while his 1.1 percent interception rate was the best in the NFL and third-lowest in league history.

"Might be time to give Alex a little credit, huh?," Harbaugh said in his postgame press conference. Might be.

For updates and analysis on these teams leading up to their matchup, visit 49ers blog Niners Nation, Giants blog Big Blue View and SB Nation New York and SB Nation Bay Area. Don't forget to check out SB Nation's NFL hub for all your playoff news.

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