San Francisco 49ers fans across the country are still recovering from what might’ve been the best (and most stressful) game of the season, topping the New Orleans Saints 48-46 in an absolute thriller. It was a brawl between two of the NFC and NFL’s best, with both 10-2 teams exchanging blows until the final bell.
Here are our takeaways from San Francisco’s 11th win of the season:
Garoppolo at his best
A “quarterback versus quarterback” matchup if I’ve ever seen one. Porous defenses for both teams led to a shootout between Garoppolo and Brees, both combining for ten touchdowns. It was undoubtedly Garoppolo’s best performance of the year, completing 26 of 36 passes (74%) for 349 yards, four touchdowns, and one interception - good for a 131.7 quarterback rating. His one turnover came on a catchable pass to Emmanuel Sanders that was tipped into the air and into the hands of New Orleans linebacker Craig Robertson. Garoppolo has steadily improved throughout the season and is now playing his best football as the 49ers inch closer to the playoffs.
George freakin’ Kittle
If Sunday was a shootout, then Kittle was the last bullet fired. It was 4th-and-2, the 49ers offense on their 33-yard line with just:39 seconds remaining. Garoppolo targeted Kittle on a short out route that would’ve converted for a first down. But Kittle didn’t stop there, breaking the tackle and darting upfield. He was eventually met by Saints defenders that took nearly 20 yards to bring Kittle down, despite pulling at his facemask. It was the play that set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal, and another feather in the cap for Kittle, who many believe is the NFL’s best tight end.
Wideouts step up
The 49ers’ group of receivers was impressive against the Saints. Emmanuel Sanders led the group with seven receptions on nine targets for 157 yards and a touchdown, averaging a whopping 22.4 yards per catch. It’s a number bolstered by a 75-yard score in which Sanders beat the Saints defense deep, falling as he made the catch, then getting back up and out-running the secondary to the endzone. Rookie Deebo Samuel contributed five catches on eight targets for 76 yards. Kendrick Bourne only caught three passes, but two were for touchdowns. He’s developed into a favorite target for Garoppolo in the endzone. To top it off, Sanders added a touchdown pass of his own, hitting running back Raheem Mostert on the second-quarter trick play for the 35-yard score.
Big playoff implications
Sunday’s win and move to 11-2 were crucial for the 49ers’ hopes of capturing the NFC West and earning the No. 1 seed for the playoffs. It became even more important late Sunday with the Seattle Seahawks (10-3) falling to the Los Angeles Rams (8-5), ushering the 49ers back into first place in the NFC West and the No. 1 seed within the NFC. San Francisco now owns the best record in their division and conference while tied with the Baltimore Ravens for the best record in the NFL. Home matchups versus the Atlanta Falcons and Los Angeles Rams remain, followed by a Week 17 matchup against the Seahawks in Seattle - a matchup that could decide the division and No. 1 seed.
Injury woes continue
Several key starters were impacted by injuries against the Saints. Center Weston Richburg was carted off the field with a knee injury in the the third quarter. It’s a significant blow to the offense, especially considering how well Richburg was playing. Cornerback Richard Sherman left the game late in the fourth quarter, hobbling off the field with a hamstring injury during the Saints drive to re-take the lead. Defensive Dee Ford also left the game in the first half after aggravating the hamstring injury that kept him out over the past two weeks. All of these injuries could result in missed time, especially Richburg’s, and the 49ers need all the help they can get as they fight for playoff seeding over the next three weeks.