49ers

49ers takeaways: What we learned in last-second 48-46 win over Saints

49ers takeaways: What we learned in last-second 48-46 win over Saints

BOX SCORE

NEW ORLEANS -- What happens when the 49ers' defense struggles? Does the offense have enough firepower to keep pace in a shootout?

The answer: Yes.

They found that out Sunday, when Robbie Gould kicked a 30-yard field goal as time expired to lift the 49ers (11-2) to an amazing 48-46 victory over the New Orleans Saints (10-3).

The winning kick was set up by George Kittle’s 39-yard reception from Jimmy Garoppolo on a fourth-down play. A 15-yard penalty for a facemask was added at the end of Kittle's run.

Garoppolo kept the 49ers’ offense rolling against Sean Payton’s New Orleans Saints at their own game. But the Saints’ offense was equally impossible to stop.

The 49ers’ defense struggled with a slew of missed tackles, and had issues with penalties throughout the game. But they powered through their problems for the victory over the Saints before a raucous crowd at the Superdome.

The 49ers’ offensive fireworks including a big day from Garoppolo, as well as a couple of nifty gadget plays. Wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders threw a 35-yard touchdown pass to Raheem Mostert. And the 49ers skillfully executed an option run play in which fullback Kyle Juszczyk pitched to Mostert for 18 yards and a big third-down conversion on a second-quarter touchdown drive.

It was an engaging back-and-forth game that could be a preview of an NFC playoff game.

Yes, please.

Here are three things you need to know about the 49ers from their Week 14 game against the Saints.

Saints attack Tartt’s replacement

New Orleans scored touchdowns on its first four possessions, and targeted strong safety Marcell Harris along the way.

Harris made his first start of the season, as strong safety Jaquiski Tartt was out because of fractured ribs (Tartt might be out of action for a couple of games)

Harris, who started five games at the end of his rookie season, is a box safety not known for his coverage skills. The Saints exploited that area of his game on the first drive when Drew Brees hit tight end Jared Cook on a 38-yard touchdown pass.

The 49ers’ secondary struggled against Brees, as the Saints converted five of seven third-down attempts. The 49ers’ defense entered the game allowing an NFL-best 134.2 passing yards per game. Brees completed 16 of 19 passes for 174 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.

Just like the rest of his defensive teammates, Harris tightened things in the second half for a while until allowing the Saints to go ahead with 53 seconds remaining in regulation.

Big-play passing game

The 49ers’ offense carried the team in the first half.

Garoppolo and wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders were on their games. They had to be just to keep the 49ers in it.

Garoppolo threw a 6-yard touchdown pass to Kendrick Bourne in the first quarter, but the 49ers trailed 20-7 after one play of the second quarter. On the 49ers’ next play, Garoppolo heaved a pass for Sanders for a 75-yard touchdown. The ball traveled 49 yards down the field in the air.

Sanders got into the act as a passer, too, when he took a pitch from Garoppolo and threw to a wide-open Mostert for a 35-yard touchdown. Mostert later scored on a 10-yard run to give the 49ers a 28-27 lead at halftime.

Garoppolo completed 26 of 35 passes for 349 yards with four TDs, two of which went to Bourne. Garoppolo hit Bourne with another 6-yard scoring pass in the fourth quarter for a 42-33 lead. His passer rating was 131.7.

Huge playoff implications

The 49ers picked up a key victory, in terms of their quest to win the NFC West and, potentially, gain home-field advantage in the playoffs.

[RELATED: Where 49ers stand in NFC playoff picture after win]

The 49ers improved to 11-2 with three games remaining in the season, while the Saints fall to 10-3. The Seattle Seahawks entered the day with a 10-2 record but currently are listed atop the NFC West standings because of their head-to-head victory over the 49ers on Nov. 11.

The 49ers can clinch a playoff spot Sunday night with a Los Angeles Rams loss or tie against Seattle. They can take over the top spot in the NFC West -- and best record in the NFC -- with a Rams victory.

Why Kyle Juszczyk gives George Kittle edge for 49ers' play of the year

Why Kyle Juszczyk gives George Kittle edge for 49ers' play of the year

The 49ers have made it to the Super Bowl, but there were several stops along the way when that outcome didn't appear as likely. Yes, San Francisco was the No. 1 overall seed in the NFC, but only by the slimmest of margins.

Literally inches, you might recall.

Rookie linebacker Dre Greenlaw sealed the top seed for the 49ers -- and a first-round bye -- with his clutch fourth-down stop on the goal line in the final seconds of San Francisco's Week 17 win over the Seattle Seahawks. It undoubtedly will go down as one of the most memorable plays in franchise history, but depending on who you ask, it wasn't even the biggest play of the current season.

There are a few additional contenders, but the most obvious would be tight end George Kittle's 39-yard catch-and-run on fourth-and-2 on the 49ers' game-winning drive to beat the Saints in Week 14. 

Fullback Kyle Juszczyk was on the sideline for both plays, and recently offered his opinion as to which is the 49ers' play of the year. 

"Two legendary plays ... season-defining plays, there," Juszczyk told 95.7 The Game's "Jo, Lo & Dibs" on Tuesday morning. "I'm an offensive guy, though, and I can't lie, when you started talking about the biggest play of the season, the first play that jumped to my mind was George's play in New Orleans, so I'm gonna give that one to George with Dre as a close second. Just two guys putting the team on their back and just willing the team to a win. So, both absolutely phenomenal plays."

[RELATED: Why 'defense wins championships' adage applies to 49ers]

Super Bowl LIV will mark the seventh straight Super Bowl featuring two top-two seeds, further indicating the benefit of a first-round bye. Both Kittle and Greenlaw's clutch plays were absolutely essential to the 49ers achieving that high seed, so really, it's impossible to say which was the play of the year, because San Francisco's season looks a whole lot different without both of them.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).

Teams with defenses like 49ers' have great track record in Super Bowl

Teams with defenses like 49ers' have great track record in Super Bowl

The "Defense wins championships" adage didn't arise out of nowhere. It's a tried and true method tested over multiple decades of different eras of the NFL, and one that bodes well for the 49ers in Super Bowl LIV against the Kanas City Chiefs.

San Francisco finished the regular season with the No. 2-ranked defense in the league behind only the New England Patriots. The Niners have been even better on that side of the ball through two playoff contests, where they've held their opponents to nearly 30 fewer total yards per game. That defense will face arguably its toughest test all year long in Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs, but based on history, there is reason to believe it will hold up.

As ESPN's Dan Orlovsky discussed on Tuesday morning's episode of "Get Up", teams with a top-two ranked defense have a very good track record in the Super Bowl. In fact, it has usually taken a Hall of Fame quarterback to overcome that defense.

Kansas City ranked fifth in the NFL during the regular season with an average of 28.2 points per game, but it's worth noting that Mahomes missed two games due to injury, and likely wasn't at full strength for several other contests. He appears to be fully healthy now, as the Chiefs have exploded for an average of 43.0 points per game in the playoffs. For comparison, the 49ers rank second among all postseason teams with an average of 32.0 points per game. While those previous top-two ranked defenses have given up an average of 18 points per game in the Super Bowl, it's unlikely San Francisco will be able to limit the Chiefs' high-flying offense to that degree, but even if they can get close, that might be enough to prove victorious.

[RELATED: 49ers, Chiefs show importance of bye weeks in NFL playoffs]

As great as the historical track record is for the 49ers, that Hall of Fame QB exception to the rule likely will keep the team from puffing its chest too much before the Big Game. Mahomes is only in his third professional season and second as a starting quarterback, but it sure looks like he'll eventually wind up in Canton.

Programming note: NBC Sports Bay Area feeds your hunger for 49ers Super Bowl coverage with special editions of “49ers Central” all week (5:30 p.m. Monday and Wednesday; 8:00 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; 6:00 p.m. Friday).