NEW ORLEANS — For the first time this season, the San Francisco 49ers found themselves in a shootout, fittingly against Drew Brees and the high-powered New Orleans Saints.
In a game with major NFC playoff implications, the Niners had just enough firepower to hold off New Orleans and leave with a scintillating 48-46 victory. The win was San Francisco’s first in New Orleans since 2014 and gave the Niners their first 11-win season since 2013.
San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould booted a 30-yard field goal as the clock expired to send the Niners to the victory. The kick came after the Niners drove to New Orleans’ 12-yard line with under a minute to play. A 39-yard completion to tight end George Kittle plus a facemask penalty on Marcus Williams put the Niners in position.
In the process, the 49ers also became the 12th team since 1978 to win 11 or more games after winning fewer than five in the previous season. The loss was the Saints’ sixth straight in a regular season game against a team with at least 10 wins.
At 11-2, the Niners now hold an important tiebreaker in the race for the top seed, though they still need the Seattle Seahawks to lose another game before they can jump back into that spot. Regardless, San Francisco now holds a head-to-head edge against the Saints and the Green Bay Packers, another top contender in the NFC.
For the 10-3 Saints, the loss removes them from the top seat in the NFC playoff picture and tosses them into a jumbled mess that includes the Niners, Packers, Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. New Orleans has already clinched the NFC South division but has its eyes on a first-round bye and, potentially, the top seed in the NFC. While New Orleans holds the tiebreaker against Seattle, it now doesn’t have one against the 49ers and Packers.
For it to happen, the Niners had to bounce back time and again with their most resilient performance in a game that featured fireworks right from the start. In a wild first half that saw the teams combine for 55 points and 581 yards – the first time teams had that many combined points and yards in the first half since Week 8 of 2014 – the Niners defense settled in a bit in the second half by holding New Orleans to 13 points while the offense came up with enough big plays and the running game stepped up when needed to salt it away.
The high-caliber football played Sunday should have been no surprise, given that it was only the fifth game between two teams with two or fewer losses this late in the season in the past 35 years.
San Francisco quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo did most of the heavy lifting to make it happen, finishing 26-of-35 for 349 yards with four touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 131.7. The four-touchdown effort puts Garoppolo with Steve Young and Jeff Garcia as the only Niners quarterbacks to have at least three games with four or more touchdowns in a season.
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders was Garoppolo’s favorite target, finishing with 157 yards on seven catches with a touchdown. Sanders also threw a 35-yard touchdown, giving the 49ers five touchdown passes in a game for the first time since 1990. Sanders became the first Niner since San Francisco joined the NFL in 1950 to throw for and catch a touchdown in the same game, the second time he’s done it in his career.
The 49ers also benefited from some late penalties that went against New Orleans on a drive that would eventually end with Kendrick Bourne’s second 6-yard touchdown on the day. The Saints were flagged three times on third down, including a defensive holding and an unnecessary roughness to help that drive stay alive.
The Saints managed to stay in it with help of a penalty as well as Niners cornerback Richard Sherman was called for holding on a third-down play that nullified a sack and would have forced a New Orleans punt.
But the 49ers, after losing their previous two games on last-second field goals, found a way to close this one out and stay in control of their future in the NFC playoff picture.
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