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Monday, January 16, 2012
Whew: Saints, 49ers sweep game-changers

By Mike Sando
ESPN.com

Back and forth the San Francisco 49ers and New Orleans Saints went until finally time ran out with the 49ers leading, 36-32.

One of the more memorable games in NFL playoff history produced four lead changes in the final minutes. It also produced the five largest one-play swings in win probability during the divisional round, according to Alok Pattani of ESPN's analytics team.

We've been charting the most pivotal plays from NFC West games all season. Pattani calculates a percentage shift based on how similar plays have impacted games in similar situations over the years. The chart puts numbers to the wild emotional swings felt during the final minutes.

"You're going to live or die in these games -- we lived," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said after the game. "We move on, and we move on in spectacular fashion."

The 49ers and Saints combined for the five most pivotal plays from the divisional round. The top two plays -- Alex Smith's winning 14-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis and the 66-yarder New Orleans scored a bit earlier -- created the largest one-play swings in the playoffs this season.

Smith's 28-yard run for the go-ahead touchdown also shows up on the list. The 49ers trailed by one point with 2:18 remaining at the time. They were already in field-goal range. As a result, the team might have been better off, strictly from a win-percentage standpoint, had Smith fallen to the ground inbounds short of the goal line.

The Saints had only one timeout remaining. The 49ers could have run down the clock before kicking a field goal with less than a minute left. I wouldn't fault Smith for taking the touchdown, however. He was playing aggressively. The 49ers are strong on defense. Brian Burke of Advanced NFL Stats took a closer look at the tradeoffs.

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