Popping up to his feet after dragging three saints defenders 10 yards, deep into New Orleans territory, 49ers tight end George Kittle thumped his chest, signalling for a first down with just 28 seconds to play in the fourth quarter.
Kittle’s 39-yard catch-and-run had placed San Francisco in prime position for a game-winning field goal as the 49ers trailed 46-45 with a chance to steal a victory in the Mercedes Benz Superdome.
After a day that saw the 49ers and Saints combine for 981 yards of total offense, 53 first downs and 12 touchdowns, San Francisco emerged victorious, 48-46, thanks to a 30-yard chip-shot from kicker Robbie Gould. With the win, San Francisco’s hopes of earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC remain alive with three games to play in the regular season.
“When you go through a game like that, it was as cool of a game as I’ve been a part of,” head coach Kyle Shanahan said. “That stuff is intense and when it’s all said and done, you feel like you’ve accomplished something.”
Sunday’s game was billed as a battle between two of the fiercest powers in the NFC. To say the least, it lived up to the advertisement, starting in the first three-and-a-half minutes as New Orleans quarterback Drew Brees marched the Saints 73 yards down field in nine plays.
Connecting with tight end Jared Cook from 38 yards out, New Orleans scored the first touchdown of the game triggering an avalanche of offense.
The 49ers entered Sunday with the No. 1 defense in the NFL, allowing 250.9 yards per game, but was put to the fire against Brees, who used quick passes with even faster developing routes from his receivers to stifle defensive coordinator Robert Saleh and his players.
“It was different because how unbelievable [the defense has] played all year,” Shanahan said. “They went against a good offense, a great coach and a great quarterback.”
Quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo, who since Week 8 had thrown a league-high 14 touchdown passes, followed the Saints lead by answering Brees’ score with a strike of his own to wide receiver Kendrick Bourne three minutes later.
Clearly, the 49ers were in the midst of a shootout against head coach Sean Payton and the Saints offense, which has shown a penchant for executing high-octane offenses for over the course of the last decade.
While the Saints opened up a 20-7 lead after a failed two-point conversion to open the second quarter, the 49ers drew within six points following a 75-yard bomb from Garoppolo to wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders.
Sanders, who has battled a rib cartilage injury for the last five weeks, finished as the game’s most productive receiver with 157 yards on seven receptions — his highest total since arriving in San Francisco in October.
Taking on the duty of quarterback on a specially-designed reverse play, Sanders followed up his monstrous touchdown reception with a touchdown pass — a 35-yard lob to a wide-open Raheem Mostert, who trotted into the end zone untouched.
“We ran it like five times [in practice],” Sanders said. “The last time we ran it, I actually threw a duck and I was like, ‘don’t throw during the game, that’s going to be on ESPN not top-10.’ I was able to execute it today.”
By halftime, San Francisco was the proud owner of a 28-27 lead. The combined score of 55 had eclipsed points-spread over which some books in Las Vegas were reported to have set at 45 before kickoff.
The game was far from over, however as San Francisco opened its first drive with a Garoppolo interception as a ball tipped off of Sanders hands and into the arms of Saints linebacker Craig Robertson.
The 49ers defense, which failed to sack Brees on Sunday, finally began to show signs of life, holding New Orleans to a 55-yard field goal on the short field, refusing to allow a first down.
After the second punt of the day from San Francisco’s offense on its ensuing drive, its defense came through one again. Punching the ball out of the arms of Saints running back Alvin Kamara, defensive lineman DeForest Buckner recovered the first fumble lost by New Orleans all year.
“It was huge because we had our first turnover on the opening drive of the third quarter,” Shanahan said. “To get that turnover and for us to get it right back, it’s hard to beat a team like that when you lose the turnover battle. To tie it up right there and then for us to go in and get a touchdown … it was a huge change.”
Garoppolo cashed in on the ultra short field with a five-yard touchdown pass to Kittle, who dove for the left pylon to put San Francisco ahead 35-30 with 9:40 to play in the third quarter.
San Francisco’s most impressive possession of the game began at the end of the third quarter as Shanahan orchestrated a 14-play, 55-yard drive that ate nearly seven minutes off of the clock.
On 3rd-and-8 from the New Orleans 14-yard line, the drive appeared to stall, forcing San Francisco to attempt its first field goal of the game, but an unnecessary roughness penalty against Saints safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson gave the 49ers a fresh set of downs.
Gardner- Johnson had lowered his helmet while trying to tackle 49ers fullback Kyle Juszczyk, striking San Francisco’s lead blocker in the head, drawing the flag.
For Saints fans, the penalty came as the second frustrating instance regarding flags — or lack thereof — in the second half. Earlier in the third quarter, San Francisco was not penalized on what some saw as a pass interference on a fake punt.
NFL rules, however, state that contact that would warrant a flag on a standard play is permitted on during punt plays.
The result of the drive was a six-yard touchdown pass from Garoppolo to Bourne who recorded his second score of the afternoon. For Garoppolo, it was his fourth touchdown pass of the day, to go along with 349 yards.
“He’s unbelievable,” Shanahan said. “I thought he was very impressive throughout the game.”
Sticking to the theme of a shootout game with a playoff-like vibe, the Saints answered yet again with a five-play, 75-yard drive, ending with a 21-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Michael Thomas from Brees. Brees’ fourth touchdown of the day brought New Orleans within two as they trailed 42-40 with just over six minutes to play in the game.
Up 45-40 after a successful field goal from Gould, it was up to San Francisco’s defense to get one more stop just before the two-minute warning.
A defensive pass interference penalty against Emmauel Moseley, who was in for RIchard Sherman, who limped off the field with what appeared to be a hamstring injury, kept the Saints drive alive, though.
Two plays later, Brees hit a wide-open Tre-Quan Smith, who sliced his way into the end zone after 49ers linebacker Fred Warner missed a shoe-string tackle near the 10-yard line.
Trailing 46-45, it was up to Garoppolo to lead a game-winning drive with just 53 seconds left in the game and after a short pass and two incompletions, it came down to a 4th-and-2 on his own 33-yard line.
Running a shallow out-route, Kittle found space near the left sideline. Leaving his defender as Garoppolo delivered a perfect ball in stride, Kittle saw open field ahead of him, which he turned into a signature, bulldozing run.
Dragging a trio of Saints defenders, Kittle got all the way to the New Orleans 28-yard line. To make matters worse for the Saints, a facemask penalty gave the 49ers an extra 14 yards, allowing them to run the remainder of the clock down to set up a game-winning kick from Gould.
“That’s just what we expect from George,” Juszczyk said. “He’s the absolute best in the league in yards after contact so we knew if we could just get him the ball, he would put us in a position to win.”
Sending the ball through the uprights with no doubt, Gould gave the 49ers their sixth road victory of the season keeping them in the drivers’ seat for the No. 1 seed in the NFC which will come with a first-round bye and home field advantage throughout the playoffs.
“It means that we’re 11-2 and we’ll see what happens,” Shanahan said. “There’s a lot of teams that have good records so it’s just one week at a time … It’s going to come down to the last week with the number for teams in the NFC.”