Drew Brees

49ers' Nick Mullens improving by watching Jimmy Garoppolo, Drew Brees

49ers' Nick Mullens improving by watching Jimmy Garoppolo, Drew Brees

SANTA CLARA -- When the 2018 season concluded, 49ers quarterback Nick Mullens established himself within some elite company.

Mullens started the second half of the season and averaged 285 passing yards per game. He finished last season with momentum, ranking fourth all-time in passing yards through eight games behind Patrick Mahomes, Andrew Luck and Cam Newton.

Although more than a year has gone by without Mullens starting another NFL game, he believes he is now a better player.

“I just feel -- not like a veteran -- but I feel like I’ve been in it for a while,” Mullens told NBC Sports Bay Area. “I feel very comfortable, just being able to take in all the information and handle information, being able to process and know where to go with the ball.

“I don’t feel like a new guy anymore. So that’s cool to be able to just know the offense, command the offense, connect with your teammates and do a lot of different things you might not feel comfortable doing when you’re the new guy.”

Mullens won the backup job at the end of training camp over C.J. Beathard, but he has yet to throw a pass this season behind Jimmy Garoppolo. Wide receivers Emmanuel Sanders and Dante Pettis are the only 49ers other than Garoppolo to attempt passes this season.

Mullens entered the NFL in 2017 as an undrafted rookie from Southern Mississippi. He was cut at the beginning of his first two seasons but remained with the 49ers’ practice squad.

After Garoppolo sustained a season-ending knee injury in Week 3, Mullens was promoted to the No. 2 spot on the depth chart behind Beathard. After Beathard struggled while taking a physical punishment, Mullens got his chance in the middle of the season.

He was prepared for his opportunity, and never gave coach Kyle Shanahan any reason to take him out of the lineup.

Mullens, known as a detailed worker, takes the same approach to be ready for his next opportunity, he said. He has a specific process he goes through at the beginning of every week.

“You tell yourself every week, ‘You’re starting this week; prepare like you’re the starter,’” Mullens said. “So I have a pretty detailed and specific routine, just playing the game in my mind and seeing what’s going to happen and walking through plays.

“That’s the biggest part because you don’t get reps. So you have to walk through the plays in your mind and physically to be able to feel what it’s going to feel like on game day. So you’re always staying ready and doing as much as you can to prepare.”

Three weeks ago, Reggie Bush posted a video on social media of his former New Orleans Saints teammate Drew Brees in an otherwise empty practice facility walking through some plays. Mullens said he does something very similar.

“That video is pretty cool,” Mullens said. “It shows why he’s been great for so long. I think that’s something quarterbacks try to do is see things before they happen. Drew has been the best at that.”

Mullens added, “I’m trying to get used to what each play is going to feel like and going through your progressions and really just being able to step in and command the offense whenever that time comes.”

Mullens stands next to 49ers quarterbacks coach Shane Day on the sideline during games. Day tells the backup quarterbacks to "play the play as much as you can in your head.” Mullens will know Shanahan's play call and what the progression is designed to be against certain defenses. Then, he will read the defense in real time and visualize where he would be going with the football.

Mullens provides Garoppolo with as much assistance as possible. And just watching Garoppolo this season has been beneficial for Mullens, he said.

[RELATED: Jimmy Garoppolo connects with 49ers fan for souvenir from Seahawks win]

Garoppolo started all 16 games this season and put together one of the best statistical seasons in club history. His 69.1 completion percentage was third all-time among those with 10 or more starts in franchise history. Garoppolo threw for 3,978 yards, ranking behind only Jeff Garcia and Steve Young (twice) among 49ers quarterbacks.

“He’s so consistent,” Mullens said of Garoppolo. “The best quarterbacks and football players are consistent. And he’s just consistently making big-time plays and handling big environments. The Saints and Seahawks are his most two efficient games and that’s in the two hardest environments.

“He thrives off the big moment, and that’s what you look for in a quarterback. So it’s awesome, and I’ve learned a lot from observing him and seeing how to be consistent as a quarterback.”

Saints' Sean Payton snaps over failed two-point conversion vs. 49ers

Saints' Sean Payton snaps over failed two-point conversion vs. 49ers

Saints coach Sean Payton wasn't in a mood to be second-guessed following his team's last-minute Week 14 loss to the 49ers.

San Francisco ultimately won the thrilling back-and-forth matchup by two measly points -- a game in which New Orleans attempted two two-point conversions.

Both failed.

After Tre'Quan Smith scored on an 18-yard touchdown pass to give New Orleans a 46-45 lead with 53 seconds remaining, quarterback Drew Brees went back to the same well for the two-point conversion attempt, but the pass intended fell incomplete. On the ensuing possession, 49ers tight end George Kittle caught a 39-yard reception on fourth-and-2, eventually setting up a game-winning Robbie Gould 30-yard field goal as time expired.

But after the tough loss, it was the former two-point try, not the latter, that Payton was questioned about -- while shopping for groceries, no less.

"I certainly understand the fans asking questions," Payton said Thursday on his weekly WWL Radio show. "I got the guy at frickin' Whole Foods asking me about the two-point play. I looked at him, the guy in the meat section, and I said, 'Hey, your steaks don't look too good right now. Worry about your frickin' meat.' "

Oh man. What's the over/under on how many "Worry about your frickin' meat" shirts will be at the Superdome when the Saints host the Colts on Monday night?

The play in question occurred midway through the first quarter, after Saints tight end Jared Cook hauled in his second touchdown reception of the contest. The 49ers were assessed a personal foul on the play, and rather than take the yardage on the kickoff, Payton couldn't pass up being so close to the goal line.

On the two-point try, Brees handed the ball off to a motioning Taysom Hill, who promptly was stuffed by multiple San Francisco defenders well short of the end zone. 

"I didn't feel like kicking a touchback, thought about kicking an onside kick," Payton explained. "So on the 1-yard line, I think we're gonna get two points. And then we get the defense misaligned -- obviously it doesn't have any success. And then the game ends, and, 'Why were you going for two?' Because I wanted to. We were on the 1-yard line."

Misaligned, huh? Payton was correct in stating that the 49ers were in an atypical alignment with two safeties on the same side of the field, but according to San Francisco defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, that was intentional.

"We knew it was coming," Saleh said Thursday in response to Payton's claim that one of the safeties accidentally lined up on the wrong side. "I’m not going to say he wasn’t on the right side because of the way we execute certain things and all our different goal-line packages that we have, but that play was a gimme one to me with Taysom Hill where he was aligned. That was a layup in my opinion."

[RELATED: 49ers severely battered, bruised with three regular-season games to go]

The tape sure seems to suggest the 49ers knew what was coming:

The Saints hung 46 points on the 49ers, so clearly, not many of Payton's play-calls were of the layup variety. But the first two-point attempt?

You might say he butchered that one.

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.