Story and photos by Derek Dunbar, senior at St. Augustine High School and Chris Taylor, junior at St. John the Baptist STEM Magnet High School.
There were only 53 seconds standing between the Saints and a victory over perhaps their biggest rival this season. New Orleans had just answered a 49ers field goal with a touchdown drive that took them less than two minutes.
The Saints defense tried to get the Niners off the field on fourth-and-two, but a completion by Jimmy Garappolo and a desperate face mask penalty by Marcus Williams brought the Niners to the red zone. They then finished off the Saints with an easy field goal and a final score of 46-48.
In a lot of ways, that final Niners drive, finished off by a crucial red zone penalty told the story of the whole game.
The Saints fought hard to stop the Niners, but after multiple discipline matters from New Orleans throughout the game, the Niners took advantage of penalties at the most crucial times. In the third quarter, for example, Chauncey Gardener-Johnson had two penalties in one drive that set two third downs back to first downs, gifting the Niners a touchdown. This created a kind of Catch 22, where the more post-penalty opportunities the 49ers got, the more gassed the Saints defense became, which, in turn, caused them to make more critical errors.
On the whole, the game was a tight, high-scoring back-and-forth between the two NFC-leading teams. In a lot of ways it was the playoff game everyone wanted to see, but in the regular season.
At the start of the game, things were looking up for the Saints. In just nine plays, the Saints took control, constantly moving the chains. And on third-and-ten, Drew Brees found tight end Jared Cook for a 38-yard touchdown, setting the tone.
Saints fans kept the energy at an all-time high—the noise meter reached a record-tying 128 decibels at one point—despite the big show-out of fans wearing red. The 49ers’ offense was able to block out the roaring Saints fans and match the Saints on their first drive, tying the game at 7-7 only seven minutes into the game.
Deonte Harris shifted the momentum back towards the Saints, putting his team in great field position with a 51-yard kick return.
Brees capitalized by finding Cook in the endzone once again for a 26-yard touchdown. Cook suffered a concussion that would keep him out the rest of the ballgame. The Saints defense came up big on the Niners’ next drive, allowing only three plays. Then on third-and-ten, linebacker Demario Davis was able to sack quarterback Garappolo, keeping all the momentum on the Saints’ side.
Deonte Harris stepped up once again returning the 49ers punt for 29 yards, putting the Saints in amazing field position to end the first quarter. With a short field to start the second quarter, Brees found tight end Josh Hill for a short pass on his third passing touchdown on the day.
The 49ers were able to momentarily quiet the Saints fans’ ecstasy with a huge 75-yard touchdown on the first play of their drive. This was not enough to shut out this dominate Saints’ offense, though, who maintained possession for about seven minutes.
The drive ended in Brees diving in for a one-yard touchdown on fourth down, giving the Saints a 27-14 lead midway through the second quarter.
The back-and-forth matchup continued as the 49ers pulled a trick out of their bag, with wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders throwing to running back Raheem Mostert, bringing the Niners within six points of tying the ball game.
Starting the third quarter, the Saints defense came out strong, forcing Garoppolo to throw an interception. A field goal by Wil Lutz put the Saints back on top (30-28). Alvin Kamara then fumbled the football at the Saints 20 yard line. Then the Niners offense capitalized with a touchdown pass to George Kittle.
Latavius Murray opened up the next drive with a 16-yard run with the help of the guys up front. Saints then converted on a fourth-and-one attempt by Taysom Hill. Lutz then closed out the drive with a 48-yard field goal.
The Saints defensive line brought the heat in the final minutes of the third quarter, forcing the Niners to punt the ball. A penalty negated the kick from the Niners and the Saints elected another try for a return.
After a long Saints drive, fans were upset after a fake punt-pass attempt from Hill, where Tre’Quan Smith was pushed hard out of bounds. The ref took the time to explain that there is no pass interference on fake punt formations, but that didn’t stop fans from hurling objects onto the field.
But the Niners kept knocking at the door, forcing the Saints defense to get out of their element. Chauncey-Gardener’s double red zone penalties ended up exhausting the defense.
As the Saints were called for Chauncey-Gardener’s second penalty, the fans began to chant “Ref You Suck.” But San Francisco fans were not having it with their own chant of “Let’s Go Niners.” The 49ers took advantage of their penalty luck with a touchdown.
The Saints offense then had a firecracker lit under their butts after a long connection from Brees to Thomas.
The relationship between Drew and Mike was obvious after Brees went back to his favorite target to make it a two-point competition at 42-40. Thomas, by the way, set a new single-season receiving yards record for the black and gold.
The Saints defense was outrageously punishing as they made the Niners gruesome offense work for every inch. A huge sack by Bell put the Niners back to the 30, forcing them to kick a field goal.
On their next drive, the Saints picked up a crucial first down as Emmanuel Moseley was called for pass interference, giving New Orleans a first down. Brees and his boys found a way to punch it in, but the two-point attempt intended for Smith failed. The Saints’ two risky two-point attempts would eventually cost them the difference in the final score.
That’s when the face mask kerfuffle went down, leaving the 49ers within easy field goal range and a timeout to kill the clock, leaving the Saints devastated with a final at 48-46.
If the Saints would like to become a Super Bowl contender, they will have to clean up some discipline issues. While the Saints had 50 yards to the Niners’ 67 yards in penalties, the Saints just kept committing penalties in the wrong moments.
Following this tough loss, the Saints will be back in the home to take on the 6-7 Indianapolis Colts, who are coming off a loss against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Despite clinching their playoff spot last week, the Saints cannot let up if they want to maintain the #1 spot in the NFC and secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs. Lucky for them, the 49ers have a tougher schedule than them.