It’s usually easy to see an epic shoot-out coming in the NFL. When the Rams and Chiefs squared off last November, no one was shocked as the two best offenses in the league put up a combined 105 points and more than 1,000 total yards. Sunday’s clash between the Saints and 49ers, though, wasn’t billed as that sort of high-scoring affair. Both teams entered Week 14 at 10-2, but their dominance had come from having two of the most well-rounded rosters in football. With two of the league’s top-seven defenses by Football Outsiders’ DVOA sharing the field, the Vegas over/under line settled around 44.5 points. Well, so much for that. The Niners and Saints each shattered that number on their own on Sunday in San Francisco’s 48-46 win, and in the process, both teams showed that they may have a gear the rest of the NFC just can’t reach.
Even when Drew Brees missed five games earlier this season with a broken thumb, the Saints were able to sustain the offensive success that’s defined the franchise over the past decade, thanks largely to head coach Sean Payton. New Orleans averaged 25 points per game with Teddy Bridgewater under center, during arguably the most impressive play-calling stretch of Payton’s career. But this group has a different ceiling with Brees in the lineup, and that was evident Sunday. The future Hall of Fame quarterback lit up the league’s top pass defense for 349 yards and five touchdowns. Even at age 40, Brees looks like he’s barely lost a step. His 38-yard touchdown pass to Jared Cook in the first quarter may have seemed easy, but the throw required an arc and placement that was anything but.
On Cook’s 26-yard score later in the quarter, Brees casually slid left out of the pocket, avoided trouble, and delivered another strike to his tight end up the seam. And Brees’s 21-yard, fourth-quarter touchdown pass to Michael Thomas, which cut the Niners’ lead to 42-40, featured a perfectly lofted throw that allowed Thomas to waltz into the end zone. Watching Brees sling the ball around Sunday, no one would have known that the Niners had gone the entire season without allowing 300 passing yards in a game.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, Jimmy Garoppolo showed up Sunday ready to trade blows with the most prolific passer in NFL history. Coming off the torn ACL he suffered early last September, Garoppolo’s had an up-and-down season so far. He’s capable of virtually flawless performances (like his four-touchdown game against the Cardinals in Week 11), but his desire to extend and create plays also leads to the occasional head-scratching throw. Against New Orleans, the good Garoppolo was on full display. He consistently showed off his pinpoint accuracy on crossing routes and the lightning-quick delivery that sold head coach Kyle Shanahan on the QB after San Francisco traded for him in 2017. Garoppolo completed 11 of his first 12 passes for 206 yards and finished the day with 349 yards and four touchdowns. Considering the competition, it was undeniably his best performance of the season.
San Francisco got most of its production Sunday through quick play-action throws over the middle of the field, which form the foundation of this passing attack. But Shanahan seemed to know that to keep up with Brees and Payton, he’d have to dig deep into his bag of tricks. After catching a 75-yard touchdown early in the second quarter, wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders threw a 35-yard bomb to running back Raheem Mostert on the following drive.
On San Francisco’s next possession, Garoppolo handed the ball off to fullback Kyle Juszczyk, who then did his best option-quarterback impression by lateraling to Mostert for a crucial 18-yard gain on third-and-1. Shanahan’s usual scheme is dangerous enough on its own, but on Sunday, he showed off the breadth of his play-calling creativity. That version of the Niners should concern the rest of the NFC.
In a cruel twist, Juszczyk’s pitch was a play that Shanahan took from the Saints’ repertoire. Payton has long been considered one of the most innovative play designers in the NFL, and he proved it again Sunday. Cook’s second touchdown reception came on a route combination specifically designed to attack the Niners’ zone-heavy scheme. With Swiss army knife Taysom Hill already wide to the left, Cook went in a short motion across the formation to form a two-receiver stack with Thomas. As Brees executed a hard play fake, Thomas sprinted down the middle of the field to hold the free safety while Hill took cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon with him down the sideline. That left Cook completely uncovered as he barreled down the seam and hauled in the touchdown.
Both Shanahan and Payton do an excellent job of forcing defenses to try to cover every blade of grass, but these offenses also have the luxury of just getting the ball in a star’s hands and letting him go to work. Thomas has been unstoppable for most of the season, and he continued his ridiculous run Sunday by racking up 134 yards and a touchdown on 11 receptions. He now has 121 catches, a number that no player in NFL history has ever amassed over the first 13 games of a season, and he needs only 22 more to tie Marvin Harrison for the single-season record. Thomas has been one of the league’s top receivers for years, but he’s reached a different level this fall. He’s the most reliable pass catcher in football right now. For an offense that already has Brees at quarterback and Payton dialing up the plays, that’s not even fair.
Luckily for the Niners, they have an unguardable receiver of their own. Facing a fourth-and-2 while trailing 46-45 in the game’s final minute, Garoppolo found tight end George Kittle on a quick out just past the first-down marker. What should have been a short, chain-moving gain turned into a 39-yard rumble as Kittle carried multiple defenders down the field before a trio of Saints finally brought him down. And Marcus Williams managed that only by grabbing Kittle’s face mask. With the ball at the New Orleans 12-yard line, Robbie Gould had no trouble drilling a 30-yard field goal to give the Niners a win.
In the most thrilling game of the season, the Niners and Saints showed the entire spectrum of their offensive excellence. At their best, these units have a combination of schematic brilliance, savvy gimmicks, and sheer talent that can turn them into scoreboard-exploding machines. But this game was about much more than entertainment value. By upsetting New Orleans on the road, the 49ers now have the inside track for home-field advantage in the NFC. At 11-2, San Francisco has a one-game edge over both the Saints and Packers in the race for the no. 1 seed, and, even more importantly, the Niners now have the head-to-head tiebreaker over both teams. The Seahawks still have a shot at claiming the NFC West title if they win out and beat the Niners in Week 17, but as of now, the road to the Super Bowl goes through San Francisco. That road may very well include a rematch with the Saints in the NFC championship game—and after what happened Sunday, that sounds just fine.