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.
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.
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.