The entertainment quotient was off-the-charts good, with the New Orleans Saints (10-3) and San Francisco 49ers (11-2) combining to produce an outcome that'll be talked about for days.
But San Francisco's 48-46 victory over the Saints on Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome put New Orleans in position where it no longer controls its destiny with regard to the No. 1 seed in the NFC. Alone, that torpedoed all the entertainment value for New Orleans, as well as ended the Saints' three-game winning streak.
There were positives to digest and negatives to dissect from a game that, on paper, had the appearance of a defensive struggle but, in reality, evolved into a last-team-with-the-ball-wins shootout.
OFFENSE: Drew Brees said the offense can be a lot better. He's the quintessential perfectionist; the rest of us happily will accept what New Orleans offered Sunday. The Saints scored six touchdowns – Brees was responsible for all of them, with five touchdown passes and a 1-yard run – and averaged 6.8 yards on 68 plays. New Orleans was good on third down (5 of 11), great in the red zone (4 of 4) and on offense, committed just one penalty. It scored touchdowns on its first four possessions and when it needed a late score, Brees (29 of 40 for 349 yards, and no interceptions) drove the Saints 76 yards in seven plays for the go-ahead touchdown with 53 seconds left. We can nitpick that the Saints came up empty on two two-point conversion attempts but, simply, 46 points should be enough to win a game.
DEFENSE: The Saints' offense was ruthlessly efficient. The defense was on the opposite end of that spectrum. New Orleans gave up 516 yards and the 49ers averaged a whopping 8.2 yards per play. The Niners came out throwing (Jimmy Garoppolo completed 26 of 35 passes for 349 yards and four touchdowns, with an interception, and receiver Emmanuel Sanders also threw a 35-yard touchdown pass), worked in the league's second-ranked running game (162 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries) and kept New Orleans off balance. The Saints sacked Garoppolo three times and had six quarterback hits, but they couldn't rattle him. And three very costly defensive penalties in the fourth quarter – twice, defensive back C.J. Gardner-Johnson was penalized on third-down plays that extended a drive that resulted in a touchdown, and safety Marcus Williams' face mask moved the 49ers into chip-shot field goal territory for the game-winner – helped seal it.
SPECIAL TEAMS: The units really were clean Sunday. Wil Lutz made field goals of 55 and 48 yards and he's a consistent weapon. Thomas Morstead only punted once, a 45-yarder, and the cover team smothered it for a 3-yard return. And rookie returner Deonte Harris was phenomenal – five kickoff returns for 155 yards, and two punt returns for 37 yards. The Saints were aggressive; Harris routinely returned kickoffs that were four, five yards deep in the end zone, and he rewarded the confidence with a huge day. Taysom Hill's incomplete pass from punt formation in the third quarter, where a defender was draped over receiver Tre'Quan Smith, was a no-call that didn't sound much better even after clarification. But New Orleans rebounded from it and climbed back into position to win the game.
The New Orleans Saints host the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on Sunday, December 8, 2019.