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Jimmy Garoppolo Finally Lived Up to His Promise—and Saints-49ers Lived Up to the Hype

With a masterful game plan from head coach Kyle Shanahan, the San Francisco QB showed he can deliver even when his conference-best defense can’t

San Francisco 49ers v New Orleans Saints Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

During his postgame press conference after the 49ers’ Week 12 victory over the Packers, Richard Sherman said he was frustrated 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo was getting criticism instead of credit for San Francisco’s success. “You have people nit-picking,” Sherman said. “The goalposts keep moving with him. … What else can the guy do?”

If the goalposts moved on Sunday, it’s because the crowd at the Superdome was screaming loud enough to shake them. The hostile environment didn’t rattle Garoppolo or the 49ers in San Francisco’s epic 48-46 victory over the New Orleans Saints. Garoppolo had perhaps his best game as a pro, completing 26 of 35 passes for 349 yards (10 yards per attempt), four touchdowns, and one interception that bounced off his receiver’s hands.The win could be a deciding factor for homefield advantage in the playoffs and confirmed Garoppolo can keep up with the league’s best offenses. Saints tight end Jared Cook caught two touchdowns for 64 yards on the Saints’ first two drives before leaving to be checked for a concussion. Cook did not return, but on the first play of the second quarter Brees found second-string tight end Josh Hill for New Orleans’s third touchdown. On the Saints’ fourth drive, Brees leapt on a quarterback sneak to put the ball past the goal line for the touchdown.

The score gave the Saints four touchdowns on their first four drives. Their 27 points were tied for the most points the 49ers have allowed in a game this season, and the Saints did it by halftime. Amazingly, this wasn’t enough for New Orleans to go into the locker room with the lead. When the Saints scored to make the game 20-7 on the first play of the second quarter, Garoppolo responded with a missile launch to Emmanuel Sanders for a 75-yard touchdown on the next play.

On the next 49ers drive Sanders threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Raheem Mostert. Sanders is the first player in 49ers history to throw and catch a touchdown in the same game.

That stuff happens because 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan is an offensive savant who thrives at reinventing the wheel (route). Shanahan made another fun play call on third-and-1 with 91 seconds left in the first half when Garoppolo handed off to fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who ran the option and pitched the ball to Mostert, who ran the ball for an 18-yard gain.

Any coach can draw up a creative play, many can come up with a few, and a handful can come up with dozens, but nobody threads them together to make a creative game plan quite like Kyle Shanahan. There’s no better example than the 28 points they scored on 22 plays on Sunday. San Francisco scored four touchdowns on five first-half drives despite having the ball for less than 11 minutes in the first two quarters, and averaged 14.5 yards per play. Their 28-27 halftime lead marked just the third game in the past 55 years in which both teams had at least 27 points at halftime.

Shanahan calls the plays, but Garoppolo executes them. At halftime, Garoppolo was 11-of-12 for 206 yards and two scores, running back Raheem Mostert had seven touches for 95 yards and two touchdowns, and receiver Emmanuel Sanders had four catches for 132 yards and a touchdown. Both teams changed up their game plans at halftime. In the first two quarters Brees and Garoppolo were a combined 20-of-20 for 284 yards (14.2 yards per pass) and four touchdowns on plays when the defenses rushed four defenders, according to ESPN’s Nick Wagoner. Both teams blitzed more in the second half, and it slowed down the scoring. On San Francisco’s first drive of the third quarter, Garoppolo threw a pass that bounced off of Sanders’s hands for an interception, and the Saints turned it into a field goal. Later in the third quarter, Alvin Kamara lost a fumble and San Francisco turned it into a touchdown. The 49ers buckled down and switched to shorter passes, and it worked when they needed it most: when they were down 46-45 with 39 seconds left and they faced a fourth-and-2. Garoppolo took the shotgun snap, looked left, and threw the quick out to George Kittle, who kept his balance as a defender nipped at his heels; the tight end turned upfield, streaked untouched for 15 yards, dragged three Saints defenders another 15 yards, and then got another 15 yards from a blatant facemask penalty against safety Marcus Williams.

Kittle has established himself as the league’s best tight end with the best combination of receiving and blocking since healthy Rob Gronkowski. Kittle leads the entire NFL in PFF’s yards per route run (minimum 25 targets) and is the site’s highest-graded player at any position, and this may have been the best play of his career. The catch-and-run increased the 49ers’ win probability by 69 percentage points (Gronk would approve), the biggest swing of the day, according to ESPN’s Seth Walder. The play set up kicker Robbie Gould for the game-winning field goal, which he drilled from 30 yards out as time expired.

The win gave the 49ers the tiebreaker over the Saints for the no. 1 seed in the NFC, but it also gave them the knowledge that the 49ers offense can win even when their conference-best defense plays like the conference’s worst. San Francisco’s defense, which leads the league in quarterback pressure rate, failed to sack Drew Brees and hit him just three times. The 49ers defense allowed five passing touchdowns, just the fifth time a player has had five passing scores against San Francisco and the first instance since Donovan McNabb in 2005. The 49ers allowed 192 yards on seven combined kick and punt returns to Saints returner Deonte Harris, compared to just 24 yards on returns for the 49ers. The 46 points allowed are tied for the fifth-most the 49ers defense has allowed in the 21st century. For one game, the Saints made the 49ers look like one of the league’s worst defenses. None of that mattered because of an outstanding day from Garoppolo, Shanahan, Sanders, Mostert, Kittle, and the rest of the 49ers offense. Garoppolo became the third quarterback in 49ers history with three four-touchdown games in the same season after Steve Young and Jeff Garcia.

“Thank goodness for our offense,” Sherman said in his postgame press conference. “Thank goodness for Jimmy Garoppolo.”