By Aaron S. Lee
Special to the Press-Herald
Less than a minute after retaking the lead off a Drew Brees touchdown pass — his fifth of the game — San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould silenced the Saints faithful inside a sold-out Superdome (73,038) to give the Niners a 48-46 victory over their former NFC West rivals on Sunday and stake a claim for home-field advantage on the road to Super Bowl LIV.
New Orleans looked to have locked up the win leading by one with 39 seconds to play before Niners quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo connected on fourth down with tight end George Kittle, who steamrolled down the sideline taking three Saints players and a flagrant face mask penalty to stop him.
The play — and additional 15-yard personal foul penalty committed by Marcus Williams — placed one of the league’s best legs within a chip-shot of the game-winning field goal and Gould came through for the 49ers who placed the franchise tag on the 37-year-old out of Penn State back in February.
“Tough loss and so many different momentum swings in that game, we probably have to watch the film two or three times to go through the ebbs and flow that they had,” said Saints head coach Sean Payton following the game. “Credit San Francisco, they made 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 did not think it would be. I thought it would be much lower scoring, but that’s the direction it went and you have to score one more.”
Initially, New Orleans appeared unstoppable taking a 20-7 lead just seconds into the second quarter thanks to two TD receptions by tight end Jared Cook, who left the game after suffering a concussion off an illegal hit to the head on his second score. Unfortunately for Saints, their opponent literally was unstoppable — offensively speaking at least.
The 49ers only needed 13 plays to score three touchdowns as Garoppolo shredded the Saints secondary going 11 of 12 for 206 yards and two touchdowns en route to a 28-27 halftime lead — the most points scored (55) in the first half of an NFL game this season. Garoppolo finished the game 26-35 for 349 yards, four touchdowns and one interception.
On a day where the Saints scored 46 points, the most since scoring 40 in last year’s season-opening loss (at home) to Tampa, it should have been more than enough to secure the win. But it was not because the New Orleans defense looked pedestrian at best allowing the Niners 516 yards of total offense, including a staggering 162 on the ground.
“We knew that we were going to get their best shot,” said Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan. “We saw every trick play, I think, that we can imagine. At the end of the day, it was up to us to see how tough they were, not how fast they were. We’ve got to get back to the gameplan and what we know.”
A decision by Payton to go for the two-point conversion following the Saints’ second touchdown in the first quarter, which ultimately failed, is sure to be scrutinized by arm-chair pundits and sports-talk shows this week. A collective groan bellowed throughout the Superdome as fans questioned a call which at the time was unnecessary with high probability of failure despite the ball being placed on the one-yard line due to a San Francisco penalty.
When asked why go for two so early in the game, Payton responded:
“Flag puts it at the one (yard line). That’s why.”
To prevent the 49ers from potentially kicking a game-winner, that led to a second-failed two-point conversion following the Saints’ final touchdown. The unsuccessful attempt ultimately made up the margin of defeat.
With the win, and 10-3 Seattle’s loss to the Los Angeles Rams (8-5) on Sunday night, the top-seeded 49ers move into possession of home-field advantage for the playoffs at the moment with the NFC South-champion Saints (10-3) now third in the conference playoff picture behind San Francisco (11-2) and Green Bay (10-3).
“I feel frustrated because we had opportunities during the game offensively to take advantage of the field position,” admitted Payton when asked his thoughts on the team’s performance. “We had a number of opportunities. We missed assignments, so no I’m not encouraged that way.”