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NEW ORLEANS — Jimmy Garoppolo had been trending in this direction for weeks.
The 49ers quarterback, who is in his first full season as a starter, had been showing more comfort in the pocket, a clearer vision of the field and a clearer understanding of head coach Kyle Shanahan’s defense-gashing offense.
The numbers were starting to rack up, and people around the league were starting to take notice.
But on Sunday, at the Superdome in New Orleans, Garoppolo took it to a whole other level.
From the start of the contest, Garoppolo was putting what New Orleanians would call “lagniappe” on his throws — a little something extra. Big or small windows, long or short throws, it didn’t matter — whatever the 49ers needed, Garoppolo provided with zeal.
He was elite in the 48-46 win over the Saints.
He made a statement.
And in turn, the Niners did too.
Sunday was the biggest game of the season for San Francisco, a season-defining contest, win or lose. In it, Garoppolo played his best game as a professional and led the 49ers to a come-from-behind win over a staunch conference rival.
He was able to out-duel Drew Brees in the future Hall of Famers’ own house. Because of that, the 49ers remain in control of their own destiny when it comes to securing the No. 1 seed in the NFC playoffs heading into the final three weeks of the regular season. A loss Sunday likely would have resigned them to an extra playoff game and three road contests to reach the Super Bowl — a tall order, even for the most talented of teams.
But because of the win and Garoppolo’s play, if the 49ers’ defensive lapses Sunday were a one-time exception — every great defense is allowed one mulligan game — then San Francisco is the team to beat not only in the NFC but in the entire NFL.
The 49ers might pride themselves on being a power football team — a squad that will run the ball whether the defense likes it or not, and a defense that will play as fast as any offense and will pack a punch — but the NFL is still, at its core, about two positions: head coach and quarterback.
In Kyle Shanahan, the 49ers have a Super Bowl pedigree and the best offensive mind in the game. He’s proving, week after week, that he’s one of the league’s elite coaches.
And now he has a quarterback that’s on his level.
Yes, the 49ers’ supposed “weak link” has evolved into one of the NFL’s best QBs in recent weeks.
Garoppolo completed 74 percent of his 35 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns Sunday — one interception (which wasn’t his fault) his only a blemish. Since Halloween, he’s completed nearly 70 percent of his throws, for nearly 300 yards a game — stats as good or better than any of the league’s household names.
Those numbers tell a story, one that should put every other Super Bowl contender on notice.
“He’s at the top of the league,” right tackle Mike McGlinchey said of Garoppolo after the game. “We’ve known that. We’ve known that for a long time, and I don’t know why everybody on the outside has doubted that. Jimmy is the man. Jimmy is the only guy we want at the helm”
But it’s the unquantifiable things McGlinchey alluded to and Garoppolo displayed Sunday that should scare the 49ers’ rivals most. His confidence in the San Francisco offense, his moxie under pass-rush pressure, and his steely demeanor in the biggest moments — the stuff that you just can’t teach and so few quarterbacks truly have — give everyone reason to believe that Garoppolo’s new, top-flight form has staying power.
Well, everyone outside the 49ers’ locker room, that is.
It was telling that Garoppolo didn’t make some out-of-this-world throw to win the 49ers the game Sunday. Miracle throws aren’t sustainable.
There’s no doubt that Garoppolo made plenty of outstanding throws against the Saints, but the toss that effectively won the game for the 49ers went about 10 yards through the air.
It was simple, on-time and accurate.
The NFL’s best tight end, George Kittle, did the rest, carrying the ball and then two Saints defenders nearly 35 yards in total to set up Robbie Gould’s 30-yard field goal as time expired.
But that routine throw — the kind that Garoppolo has made countless times before — came in the biggest moment of his NFL career.
The 49ers took over possession down by a point with 75 yards of green in front of them — 50 yards until they were, conservatively, in field-goal range — and only 53 seconds to play. That dunking 10-yard throw to the flat came on fourth-and-2.
The 49ers’ fate — their dreams of winning the NFC West, of hosting playoff games, of having home-field advantage in the NFC Championship Game, should they make it — rested on Garoppolo executing at that moment.
And make no mistake about it: Many quarterbacks would have crumbled under the pressure of that moment.
Maybe he was born with the ability to uncannily rise above the fray. Maybe he learned it from the Patriots when he was Tom Brady’s backup on Super Bowl-winning teams.
Whether it’s nature or nurture or a confluence of both, Garoppolo’s best came through in the most harrowing circumstances an early-December game can provide. It was able to come through because his even-keeled demeanor has earned him the trust of his teammates over the last three years. And in recent weeks, he has begun to trust in himself, allowing his talent to shine.
Kittle’s “lagniappe,” his incredible run down the Saints’ sideline, defensive backs hanging off him like lions on a hippo, will prove the lasting image of one of the most entertaining football games you’ll ever be fortunate to watch.
But it was Garoppolo’s 60-minute announcement to the NFL that he is anything but the weak link on this 49ers team that will be this memorable contest’s lasting legacy.