The Saints and 49ers have a long history of incredible games. None more memorable than the 2011 divisional playoff matchup. Visions of Vernon Davis striding down the field for 47 yards, putting the Niners in position to win still fresh in the memories of many Saints fans. After today, perhaps that memory begins to fade, but for all the wrong reasons.
The Saints seemed to have come out of the dark ages when an electrifying offense had no complimentary defense. These were the days of 2014 – 2016. Fielding historically bad defenses to accompany a historically remarkable Drew Brees. Over the last couple of years, the Saints have seen a reawakening on the defensive side of the ball. Much improved communication in the secondary, a stout front seven, the recharge that came with Demario Davis and Eli Apple of these last few years.
Most of that seemed to go out the window when the Saints and 49ers squared off this week. Sure, Shy Tuttle played a great back, Craig Robertson ended up with an interception off the hands of a San Francisco receiver, and the Saints out-sacked the Niners 3-0. All of this while the offense rolled to the tune of four straight touchdowns to open the game, five passing touchdowns and a rushing touchdown by Drew Brees, 46 points, and a big day on special teams by Deonte Harris.
But none of that could erase a day in which the Big Easy’s third-ranked run defense gave up 162 rushing yards, a previously much improved passing defense surrendered 354 yards and four touchdowns through the air, and all-told yielded 48 points to San Francisco’s offense. This game had it all. Exciting trick plays, big time offensive firepower, controversial calls, and a pair of resilient winners trying to add another W to their tallies. But defense was not a running theme.
Shades of those dreaded years popping up as Drew Brees leads what should have been his 47th career game-winning drive. Brees, yet again, despite several mental errors across the team, harshly called penalties, and poor defensive execution drove New Orleans down the field to take a late lead. Unfortunately, the 53 seconds left on the clock were simply too much for a San Francisco offense that carried all the confidence in the world into their final drive.
However, the Saints defense held to force a 4th and 2 with a chance to put it away. But, much like Vernon Davis’ 2011 catch and run, George Kittle makes a catch to not only convert the fourth down but broke free of Chauncey Gardner-Johnson’s grasp and bullied his way down the field for for 39 yards, plus a Marcus Williams Face Mask penalty to add insult to injury.
With that, San Francisco was able to boot in a 30-yard field goal for the win. Thus the Saints’ first ever loss scoring 46 or more points in a game.
Now, the Saints have gone from the first seed in the NFC to the third thanks to an accompanying Green Bay win vs. Washington.
The good news? New Orleans showed offensive fire power against the league’s second best scoring defense to the likes of which we haven’t seen this season. While they didn’t put it together for that ever elusive “complete game” on the defensive side, there’s hope they can. But dealing with hypotheticals has been the theme all season for the Saints. Consistent conversation around how they’re “still looking for their best game” has grown old. The Saints no longer have any choice but to find a way to bring it all together – and ideally doing so straight to a Super Bowl.
The Saints might have lost this game and the number one seed for now, but there’s still much to fight for. New Orleans is already locked into the playoffs with three games remaining in the season. If they want to improve their seeding and playoff position – they’ve no choice but to win out. In addition, if they want to get back to the top of the NFC, they’ll now need help. New Orleans will need, in addition to that clean sweep for the remainder of their schedule, losses to each Seattle, San Francisco, and Green Bay.
Perhaps New Orleans can get back to that top seed, although the second or third seem much more likely. The Saints should have learned a lot about themselves in this game and perhaps more importantly, about the 49ers who could end up being a Conference Championship match up next month.
Next week New Orleans will host the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football. Their first test off of this heartbreaking loss to see if they can finally put it all together on both sides of the ball in front of their final regular season home audience. If they do, it could’ve come at a better time, yes. But there’s motivation to keep the gears firing on all cylinders into and through the playoffs.