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How fun was that?
The 49ers and Saints played a game for the ages Sunday — a contest that was relentlessly compelling, enviably entertaining, and won’t soon be forgotten by anyone who watched it
There were 94 points — the most combined points in a game between 10-win teams in the history of the NFL — and seven lead changes in all, and when it was sealed, 48-46, with a game-winning Robbie Gould field goal as time expired, the 49ers moved back into first place in the NFC standings, a spot they now hold outright because of Seattle’s loss Sunday night.
“That was as cool of a game as I’ve ever been part of,” Kyle Shanahan said of the 49ers’ win.
“We’re moving in the right direction at the right time,” Jimmy Garoppolo said.
Indeed they are.
And with the win, the 49ers playoff scenarios are now rather binary.
The Niners’ win and Seattle’s loss Sunday — giving San Francisco a one-game lead — doesn’t change the calculus in the NFC West ahead of the teams’ looming Week 17 showdown. Should Seattle remain within one game behind San Francisco heading into that contest in Washington, the Seahawks would win the division with a win thanks for a head-to-head tiebreaker.
But the win over the Saints all but guaranteed that should the Niners win the division, they’ll also take the top seed in the NFC playoffs, as San Francisco now holds tiebreakers and one-game leads over New Orleans and Green Bay.
Here are three other lessons we learned from Sunday’s game:
1. From hunter to hunted
Despite all this success, it’s important to remember that these 49ers are new to it. Yes, they might have players and coaches with Super Bowl history, but this squad, on the whole, has not competed at this level before.
Hell, the 49ers had the second-worst record in the NFL last year.
They’re the plucky upstarts, and you can’t tell me that hasn’t played to their advantage.
But in beating one of the NFL’s perennially elite teams — a squad that had every reason to beat them on Sunday, given that they had a Hall of Fame quarterback that opened the game with four straight touchdown drives in a building that provides a legitimate home-field advantage — the 49ers have switched roles.
They were once the hunters. Now they’re the hunted.
Clear at the top of the NFC West and the conference as a whole, San Francisco can no longer be viewed as anything but a legitimate, bonafide Super Bowl contender — which means they will now have to reckon off not just the advances of teams beneath them in the standings but also conceit and complacency. A slip up either way and Sunday’s effort could well be for naught.
The first test of complacency will be Sunday, when the Falcons — a talented team with nothing to lose — comes to Levi’s Stadium. After more than a week away from the Bay and a satisfying shootout win in New Orleans, it’s easy to let down one’s guard ahead of playing Atlanta — a contest I highly doubt Joe Staley compares to one of the classic playoff games of the decade, like he did with Sunday’s win.
Meanwhile, the test of humility is steadfast in the NFL, where the unofficial rule is humble yourself or the league will do it for you.
Perhaps it’s the looming threats from the rest of the conference or the lack of success in the first two years of this coaching regime, but
San Francisco has kept an even keel — taking after Shanahan and Garoppolo — amid this success.
That cannot change now.
2. George Kittle is the 49ers’ best player — and deserves MVP love
The 49ers haven’t been going through the hoops in media availability as much in recent weeks. They’re proving more than comfortable in coming out and saying what they really believe:
George Kittle is the team’s best player.
It sounds obvious to some, shocking to others. A tight end, the team’s best player?
It’s true — even after Garoppolo’s elite performance Sunday.
Kittle’s play-of-the-season, game-winning catch-and-run will be the lasting highlight of Sunday’s win, but his impact on the Niners is much larger than that play — though it did encapsulate so much of what makes him great.
The Niners’ offensive identity revolves around Kittle, who legitimately loves blocking as much as he loves catching the ball. He seeks contact, craves physicality, and dares opponents to match his level of crazy. (That didn’t work out for the Saints.)
With a player like that at the heart of the offense, is it any surprise why the 49ers have been so good on the road this season?
He’s not just the team’s best player — he’s its most important, too.
The Niners’ power run game needs Kittle to be great. The passing game needs him to be great. The team’s spirit needs Kittle’s enthusiasm, too.
The top two candidates for NFL MVP — for good reason — are Lamar Jackson and Russell Wilson.
But Kittle deserves at least one MVP vote this season. He’s a do-it-all linchpin on the NFC’s best team (to date).
And if that can’t get an MVP vote — one measly vote — then we need to come up with better awards.
3. The absence of Jaquaski Tartt loomed large
Sunday’s contest was the best game of collective offensive coordination I’ve ever seen, in person, in my sports writing career. Sean Payton and Kyle Shanahan are truly masters of their craft.
And sometimes being a master of craft is having the conviction to take what is readily available time and time again.
That’s what Payton did Sunday.
All-Pro-caliber safety Jaquaski Tartt missed Sunday’s game with a broken rib, and Payton opted that instead of being trying to match wits and exotics with Shanahan, he’d instead simply exploit Tartt’s replacement, Marcell Harris, again and again, and again.
Harris played better as the game progressed, but he played with what felt like a game-defining indecisiveness at the beginning of the contest. The 49ers’ defensive performance was littered with missed reads and missed tackles and outside of middle linebacker Fred Warner (who had arguably his worst game of the season) Harris had to have led the team in both categories.
Without Tartt cleaning up messes in the secondary, the 49ers defense looked downright slow on Sunday — a stark departure from normalcy.
Tartt is week-to-week. With Harris’ improvement, the 49ers can likely survive for another week without Tartt — maybe two. Atlanta will surely target Harris as well — we’ll see if they can execute with the precision New Orleans displayed Sunday.
Even in victory, the notion that the team could simply continue to roll without the outstanding safety — that they could absorb his injury and not lose a step, as they have with so many other injuries this season — was roundly rejected Sunday.
Tartt’s impact on the team has been immense all season, but it was felt strongest in absence.