The San Francisco 49ers, again, provided a candidate for the NFL’s game of the season. And this time, they could savor the outcome rather than lament it.
“Credit San Francisco,” Saints Coach Sean Payton said at his postgame news conference. “They made the plays at the end when they needed to. It was a little surprising to me that it ended up being that type of game. I didn’t think it would be. I thought it would be much lower-scoring. But that’s the direction it went.”
Saints quarterback Drew Brees completed 29 of 40 passes for 349 yards. He threw five touchdown passes (and ran for another), had no interceptions, had a passer rating of 138.4 … and lost.
The Niners’ Jimmy Garoppolo stood his ground in the quarterbacking duel with Brees, connecting on 26 of 35 throws for 349 yards and four touchdowns. The 49ers also got a gadget-play touchdown pass thrown by wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders. And after Brees’s touchdown pass to wide receiver Tre’Quan Smith gave the Saints a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds remaining, Garoppolo guided the Niners to kicker Robbie Gould’s winning 30-yard field goal as time expired.
Along the way, Garoppolo found tight end George Kittle for a 39-yard completion on a fourth-and-two play from the San Francisco 33-yard line. Kittle drew a face-mask penalty as he bulled his way toward the end zone, putting the ball at the New Orleans 14 with 28 seconds left and setting up Gould’s decisive kick.
“We had a couple different options,” Garoppolo told Fox after the game. “George, I mean, he killed the guy on the route. He did the rest with the ball in his hands. The guy’s unbelievable. Just a real team effort today. It was awesome.”
The 49ers’ two losses this season have come on final-play field goals by their opponents, one by the Seattle Seahawks and one by the Baltimore Ravens. This time, they won by a final-play kick against a top team.
Until Sunday, the best game of the NFL season was probably the Seahawks’ 27-24 triumph over the 49ers in Santa Clara, Calif., on Nov. 11. The Niners tied that game with a field goal with one second remaining in regulation. The Seahawks won it on a field goal as time expired in overtime.
Niners-Saints probably surpassed Niners-Seahawks, given the offensive exploits. It wasn’t quite on the level of last season’s Rams-Chiefs scoring-fest, the first game in NFL history in which each team scored 50 or more points. But it was pretty good.
“It was a big one,” Garoppolo said. “This atmosphere and everything, I think it’ll help us down the road. This crowd was into it. It was loud. I think the guys handled it well.”
The margin with the NFC’s top three teams — the Seahawks, 49ers and Saints — is about as thin as it gets. The Saints began Sunday in the lead for the NFC’s No. 1 playoff seed. The Seahawks were second and the Niners, trailing Seattle in the NFC West, were fifth. The 49ers took over the top seed, for the moment, with the victory over the Saints. The Seahawks can reclaim the NFC West lead and take over the lead for the No. 1 seed with a triumph Sunday night over the Los Angeles Rams.
The game had the requisite officiating controversy, with Saints fans wondering why they didn’t get a pass interference or defensive holding call against the 49ers on a failed fake punt in the second half. It is a sore subject in New Orleans, of course, after the missed pass interference call against the Rams that kept the Saints out of the Super Bowl last season.
“I don’t want to answer one officiating question today,” Payton said after Sunday’s game.
But Mike Pereira, the former NFL officiating czar who is now a rules analyst for Fox, said in a video posted to the network’s Twitter account that, by rule, there cannot be pass interference committed on a fake punt against the offensive player lined up the widest in the formation. Pereira said that, in his view, the Saints were not wronged this time.
“I really understand Sean Payton’s frustration,” Pereira said. “But that was not a hold. And it was not pass interference.”