SANTA CLARA When Alex Smith was at his lowest, Vernon Davis was at his side.
As 49ers coach Mike Singletary tore into Smith on the sideline of a mistake-filled game against Philadelphia on Oct. 10, 2010 and as a national audience took in the spectacle Davis intervened on behalf of his quarterback.
That wasn't the only instance of the tight end's loyalty. Of all the 49ers, Davis has been the most constant and vocal supporter of Smith, even during times when the faith of coaches, fans and teammates had flickered.
It's appropriate that Smith and Davis fueled Saturday's come-from-behind playoff win over New Orleans and connected on the franchise's biggest play in many years.
Davis' 14-yard touchdown catch with nine seconds left not only gave the 49ers the victory, it allowed him to pass Kellen Winslow for the most receiving yards by a tight end in NFL playoff history.
Winslow had 166 receiving yards for San Diego in a division-round win over Miami in 1982. Davis' 180 yards trail only Jerry Rice's 215 yards in the 1989 Super Bowl against Cincinnati for the biggest receiving game by a 49er in the postseason.
Davis exhorted the 49ers during a halftime speech, then was put in a position to deliver them the win.
"Really happy for Vernon," Smith said. "Even at halftime, got in here at halftime and got a little emotional with us on offense and got after us a little bit."
The 49ers drafted Davis sixth overall in 2006 to be a weapon for Smith, whom they took first overall in 2005.
The tight end initially was not a very good pass catcher. He was a powerful and fast straight-line runner, but he struggled in any situation in which he wasn't squarely facing the ball.
Davis, however, worked hard to improve in that area, staying late after every practice to work on his hands and catch passes fired from near and far by a machine. On Saturday, he caught seven of 10 passes thrown in his direction, including three over-the-shoulder catches for 106 yards.
Smith, meanwhile, was treated like a conquering hero during Saturday's game, a sharp contrast to the 2010 season, when he was booed mercilessly in the 27-24 loss to Philadelphia and a season-ending 38-7 win over Arizona.
And it's poetic that his biggest supporters led the way.
Like Davis, left tackle Joe Staley has not wavered in his commitment to Smith, one of his best friends. On Saturday, Staley darted like a wide receiver ahead of Smith and made a block 20 yards downfield to pave the way for Smith's 28-yard touchdown run.
"I think it's fitting for all the stuff he's been through," Staley said when asked about Smith's big game. "The year that he's having and everybody talking about how we're a run-only team, still not giving him the credit he deserves. And then going toe-to-toe with Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints and then winning the game at the end it's very, very fitting."