They did not want overtime -- not against the Saints and definitely not against Drew Brees. So with 14 seconds left, the 49ers decided not to settle for a short field goal that would extend one of the most thrilling playoff games in NFL history.

They went for the end zone with a play they had never run in a game and rarely practiced, a play that was wholly dependent on the New Orleans Saints' defensive alignment and required perfect timing between quarterback Alex Smith and tight end Vernon Davis.

Then two players who had taken their lumps as high-profile draft picks made their pasts disappear with a touchdown that signaled the return of the franchise Jan. 14, 2012.

"We went through a lot together, endured so much pain," Davis said. "That play meant a lot."

The Vernon Post, which propelled the 49ers to a 36-32 victory and ranks No. 3 in our countdown of the 49ers' most unforgettable moments at Candlestick Park, had entered the playbook only a few days earlier.

It came at the suggestion of quarterbacks coach Geep Chryst, whose experiences on the Carolina Panthers' staff led him to believe the Saints would be vulnerable to a bang-bang pass to Davis near the goal line.

The 49ers practiced the play a few times, then tucked it away for possible use in their first playoff game in nine years.

They sprung it on the unsuspecting Saints with 14 seconds left to conclude a dazzling stretch in which the teams combined for four touchdowns in four minutes.

Smith had connected with Davis on a 47-yard catch-and-run that pushed the 49ers into field-goal range trailing 32-29. After a short completion to Frank Gore, Smith spiked the ball to stop the clock with 14 seconds left.

The 49ers were 14 yards from the end zone, on the left hash mark and in possession of one timeout.

"Everyone thought they'd center the ball, kick the field goal and go to overtime," said Ted Robinson, the 49ers play-by-play voice.

Offensive coordinator Greg Roman and coach Jim Harbaugh had other ideas.

"We didn't want overtime with those guys," Roman said. "They could score at the drop of a hat, as they showed on the previous drives. Our defense had been on the field a long time in that game. We had to try to score."

They needed a play that wouldn't take long to develop, carried relatively low risk and would cover the distance.

The Vernon Post was the perfect fit, save for one unknown: the Saints' defensive alignment.

If the Saints played a Cover 1, with one safety deep and the other shadowing Davis, the risk factor would soar: Smith would have to fire the pass into tight coverage (interception alert!) or improvise in the pocket (sack! fumble!).

Only in the Cover 2, with both safeties aligned in the end zone at the snap of the ball, would Davis have an unimpeded path to the end zone and Smith an open lane for his pass.

"We gambled they'd be in Cover 2 because we had just gone down the field on them in Cover 1," Roman said.

"And we ruled out a blitz because they had been aggressive early in drive and we torched them.

"We hedged our bets that they would say, 'Let's see if they can pick us apart in a Cover 2 zone.' That's extremely tough down there because there's not much field to work with."

The play came in from the sideline, and Smith relayed the instructions. Davis, lined up in the left slot, knew his moment had come.

"I thought, 'Wow, they're really calling this play for me,' " he recalled. "I have to make the play. I looked at Alex, and he looked at me."

Sure enough, the Saints were in Cover 2. But there was one more obstacle: Saints linebacker Scott Shanle, who was positioned 5 yards off the line of scrimmage -- and directly in Davis' path.

Enter Justin Peelle, the 49ers tight end aligned a few steps outside of Davis.

"His job is basically to (attract) the linebacker and make sure he doesn't fall back into the post route," Roman said.

"If the linebacker has too much depth, it will blow the whole thing up. And that's how we presented it to Peelle: 'You have to "grab" him.' "

At the snap, Peelle ran 5 yards, turned and gave Shanle the hard sell. Davis sprinted straight ahead from his slot position.

Halfway to the end zone, he angled slightly toward the middle -- toward the goal post -- and was perfectly positioned behind Shanle and in front of safety Roman Harper.

"Alex had to trust that Vernon would be in the spot," Roman said. "It was a great bang-bang play."

David turned toward Smith as he approached the end zone. The pass was perfectly placed and timed, reaching Davis just as he crossed the goal line. Then Harper arrived.

Catch, collision, touchdown.

Rebirth for the franchise.

Redemption for Smith and Davis.

"They brought me in for him," said Davis, drafted in 2006, sixth overall, to give Smith, drafted first overall a year earlier, a primary target. Peelle was the first to greet Davis, then a swarm of players arrived.

By the time he reached the 49ers sideline, Davis was in tears.

"It was all the emotion in me, everything I could think of," he said. "I thought about the first day I walked into the stadium'' -- for an autograph session before his rookie season -- "and imagined myself making plays like Dwight Clark and Jerry Rice, starting with The Catch.

"I turned in circles that day in the stadium, thinking about that stuff, about being a part of the 49ers ... As a kid you dream about making the game-winning shot. That was the play."

Candlestick Moments
In honor of the 49ers' final season at Candlestick Park, we count down the team's Most Unforgettable Moments there. Stories will run periodically until Dec. 23, the last regular-season game at the place the 49ers have called home since 1971. The 10 Most Unforgettable Moments -- among them a few that 49ers fans can't forget, no matter how hard they try -- were voted on by our sports staff. You can vote at mercurynews.com/49ers. The fan vote will be revealed before the final game.


INSIDE
Jim Harbaugh (shown) takes pen to paper to sketch out the play that resulted in The Catch III. PAGE 5

THE COUNTDOWN
10. The Greatest Comeback Dec. 7, 1980
9. Kaepernick, Superman Jan. 12, 2013
8. Young's Victory Lap Jan. 15, 1995
7. Giant Heartbreak Jan. 20, 1991
6. Rice Sets TD Record Sept. 5, 1994
5. Young's Crazy Run Oct. 30, 1988
4. The Gigantic Comeback Jan. 5, 2003
3. The Catch III Jan. 14, 2012