Across the nation, few believed the 49ers could beat the Saints Sunday in the Superdome.
It was a battle of two 4-4 teams going in different directions. The 49ers had lost two in a row and the Saints had won two straight.
Most NFL analysts predicted the Saints would win. Wrote Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk late this past week: “The 49ers’ once-budding dynasty is crumbling.”
Turns out they were wrong.
The 49ers jumped off to a 14-0 lead – in what could be considered their make-or-break game of the season – stumbled in the second half, rallied late for a tie to send the game into overtime and then won it, 27-24, on a 35-yard field goal by Phil Dawson.
It was a game that easily could have gone the other way at several points – including what looked like a winning TD by Graham in the closing second of regulation that was called off because of offensive pass interference. But the Niners were resilient when it counted.
San Francisco is now 5-4 with seven games to play and still alive in the hunt for a playoff spot in the NFC West.
The game started perfectly for the 49ers. Antoine Bethea intercepted Drew Brees on the Saints’ first possession, giving San Francisco the ball on the Saints’ 19. Three running plays later, Frank Gore scored on a 4-yard run for a 7-0 49ers lead. Then, after stopping New Orleans again, San Francisco drove 89 yards for another score on Carlos Hyde’s 9-yard run.
Before halftime, San Francisco scored again on a 15-yard TD pass from Colin Kaepernick to Anquan Boldin to give the 49ers a 21-10 halftime lead.
But in the second half, San Francisco’s offense went flat, while Brees connected with All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham twice for touchdowns, the second time just under the 2-minute warning to put New Orleans up 24-21.
The Niners then responded to tie the game and send it to overtime, thanks to a fourth-down, 51-yard completion from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree to set up Phil Dawson’s 45-yard field goal.
In overtime both the Saints and 49ers couldn’t score on the opening possessions. Then, when the Saints got the ball back, Ahmad Brooks sacked Brees, forcing a fumble that was recovered by rookie inside linebacker Chris Borland at the Saints’ 17.
Wasting no time, head coach Jim Harbaugh sent Dawson out immediately, and he drilled the 35-yarder for the victory.
For Brooks, it was payback for last season, when his late fumble-forcing sack on Brees was negated by a penalty in a game the Saints won.
This time, his play delivered the win and possibly saved San Francisco’s season.
The 49ers will try to keep the momentum going next Sunday, with a game against the Giants at the New Jersey Meadowlands.
Borland again was terrific on defense, with 11 tackles and six assists to go along with his key fumble recovery. On offense, the 49ers were much more efficient, with Gore and Hyde combining for 117 yards rushing and Kaepernick completing 14-of-32 for 210 yards.