With half their schedule remaining, the 49ers likely need a 6-2 finish at worst to remain in the playoff hunt after consecutive losses pinned them at 4-4 headed into Sunday’s game against the Saints.
But Jim Harbaugh’s team didn’t approach the game like it had any margin for error.
”We said it all week. We felt like our backs were against the wall,” receiver Anquan Boldin said. “We felt like it was a must-win game for us. Guys played that way. Guys played their butts off. We didn’t play a perfect game. We just continued to fight.”
Fight they did, and the 49ers held on to a dramatic 27-24 win in overtime over the heavily-favored Saints, who had not lost a home game since Dec. of 2012.
It took big plays in key moments, and perhaps a little luck.
It looked as though the Saints had the game won as time expired, when New Orleans’ behemoth tight end Jimmy Graham hauled in a 47-yard hail marry surrounded by three 49ers defenders in the end zone. But Graham was flagged for offensive pass interference for pushing off 49ers corner Perrish Cox.
For a moment, the 49ers’ season seemed to take a dramatic downward turn. San Francisco allowed the Saints to take their first lead of the game midway through the fourth quarter after building a 21-10 lead going into halftime. Allowing a come-from-behind win Sunday in the final moments would have been crippling to the team’s psyche considering how well the defense had played all year without three All-Pro linebackers.
”Well, shoot, when I saw him catch the ball in the end zone I thought it was over,” safety Antoine Bethea said, who set up San Francisco’s first touchdown with an interception in Saints territory. “But I seen the flag, I said ‘thank God.’ I was telling guys in the locker room if we would have ended the game like that, I would have been sick. I don’t think I would have been able to sleep all week. Glad it ended the way it did.”
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In overtime, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks made his biggest play of the season, avenging last year’s hit on Drew Brees that drew a controversial penalty and played a big part in a Saints win.
Brooks got another strip sack, and this time the fumble was recovered by rookie linebacker Chris Borland, who was making his third straight start in place of Patrick Willis. There was no flag this time, and the 49ers wasted no time in getting Phil Dawson on the field to hit the game-winner from 35-yards out on the next play.
”It kind of is poetic justice he made the play there,” 49ers defensive coordinator Vic Fangio said. “The referees got it right this time.”
Fangio’s defense forced three Brees turnovers, including two first-half interceptions along with the fumble in overtime. Borland had a game-high 17 tackles, leading the 49ers for the second straight week. The third-round pick has been invaluable while Willis has been out with a toe injury.
"He’s a special, special guy. He works hard," Brooks said. "And it shows up in game time. He has a bright future and what he’s done in college and I’m pretty sure he can do it in the NFL too."
Brees threw for 292 yards on 28 of 47 completions. Two of his three TDs went to Graham, including the go-ahead 2-yard pass in the fourth. The other was a 31-yard strike to rookie speedster Brandon Cooks, who caught the eye of many 49ers fans during the pre-draft process.
San Francisco’s offense, and quarterback Colin Kaepernick in particular, struggled to move the ball in the second half after scoring three touchdowns in the first.
Kaepernick finished with 210 yards passing, but completed just 6 of 18 in the second half for 91 yards. The 49ers were one play away from losing after the Saints took their 24-21 lead late in the fourth. But Kaepernick’s rifle of an arm helped tie the game toward the end of regulation.
On fourth-and-10 from his own 22 with 1:34 remaining, Kaepernick was flushed to his right and located a streaking Crabtree down to the opposite side of the field. Crabtree had been a virtual non-factor to that point, but hauled in Kaepernick’s bullet across the field for a 51-yard gain. Three plays later, Dawson hit from 45 yards to tie it.
”I was watching Colin. And then when I saw him set up, then I looked and saw he had Michael Crabtree. Great vision, great concentration by Michael,” Harbaugh said.
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The 49ers did everything they could to establish the run in the early going after the play calling had been scrutinized in recent weeks for veering away from Frank Gore in critical moments. Gore got the ball on three straight plays to start the game culminating in his second rushing touchdown of the year after Bethea picked Brees and brought the ball back to the Saints’ 14.
San Francisco scored touchdowns on all three of its red zone trips after entering the game the worst in the league in that category, which was bullet-pointed in the previous week’s home loss to the Rams. Rookie Carlos Hyde added a 9-yarder on a pitch to the left to make it 14-0 in the first quarter. Boldin scored on a fade pass to the right side of the end zone from 15 yards out in the second to make it a 21-10 game.
The 49ers had a complete balance of running plays and passing plays, dialing up 32 of each throughout the game.
”(The balance) was nice to see,” Harbaugh said. “Thought we were very effective in the running game. I thought Greg Roman called an outstanding game, as he always does. He’s a great coordinator. Indispensable part of our team. But I thought a heck of a good game plan and well executed by our players.”
After allowing 14 sacks in their last two games, the 49ers offensive line allowed four more Sunday, but they didn’t prove as costly.
More costly, perhaps, were drops by 49ers pass catchers. Boldin had five unofficially, leading to just 6 completions on 15 targets. One of his biggest came on a third-and-15 play in the third quarter deep down field that would have gone for a big gain, and a first down.
Instead, San Francisco punted and the Saints scored on Graham’s 11-yard pass from Brees, after safety Eric Reid and linebacker Michael Wilhoite couldn’t bring him down on a well-timed third-down blitz.
The 49ers improved to 5-4 with a game against the New York Giants on the road next week.