The league’s top-heavy this year, and six teams have 10 or 11 wins heading into the last three weeks. Two of those teams, Seattle and San Francisco, are in the NFC West, and one could finish 13-3 and face nothing but road games to get to the Super Bowl. Entering Sunday, Seattle and San Francisco were 10-2, but Seattle had the tiebreaker edge, so the Niners were ensconced as a wild card as they took the Superdome field. “Kyle talked to us about that before the game,” Kittle told me. “Technically, we were the fifth seed. But we’ve got our destiny in our hands. We knew that.”
The game was insane. Each team scored four times in the first half, four times in the second. It was 28-27, Niners, at the half. After halftime, the teams ping-ponged points: Saints first, then Niners, Saints, Niners, Saints, Niners, and then, with 53 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Saints, on an 18-yard touchdown pass from Drew Brees to Tre’Quan Smith to make it 46-45, New Orleans. No one open on the two-point conversion pass. So if San Francisco could kick a field goal, that’d end it.
Brees, by the way, was stupendous in a performance that left him two touchdown passes shy of breaking Peyton Manning’s all-time touchdown record of 539. Five touchdowns, no interceptions. How many more games like this he has left a month shy of turning 41 I do not know. But this one, with the stakes involved, was an all-timer for him. On that go-ahead TD, he saw a huge mismatch—Smith isolated on middle ‘backer Fred Warner—and zipped the ball onto Smith for an easy TD. Or at least Brees made it looks easy, as he so often does.
So many Saints have been in this spot before, playing in front of a howling crowd with games and divisions and playoff berths on the line. Brees and Cam Jordan and Thomas Morstead and Terron Armstead, and even some of the young guys like Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas. But most of the Niners were brand new to it. Garoppolo looked affected in the Monday night loss a month ago, misfiring in key spots and missing a few open receivers. Not Sunday. He and Brees each threw for 349 yards with a QB rating over 130. Jimmy G played on the Brees stage, in the Brees house, and acquitted himself quite well. And I’d have written that regardless of what happened in the last 39 seconds in New Orleans.
Thirty-nine seconds left. Aaah, this was different now: Shanahan bunched three receivers just outside the left tackle: Kendrick Bourne the tip of the spear, with Emmanuel Sanders to his left and a full step back, and Kittle slightly right and behind Bourne. You could see what Shanahan had in mind. Bourne and Sanders would clear out for Kittle, and unless Saints defensive coordinator decided to double Kittle, Garoppolo would make Kittle the first read. At the snap, Bourne ran hard up the left seam, and Sanders did a five-yard crossing route, left to right. And there was one man, rookie safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, guarding Kittle, with safety Marcus Williams about 10 yards upfield protecting over the top if Kittle beat the kid.
“On the Choice route,” Kittle said, “you just motion over [from right to left, into the formation], and if it’s man, I line up behind Emmanuel and KB and they clean it out for me. The guy covering me sat pretty far inside. ‘Choice’ means I can break in, or break out. With him sitting inside, [Gardner-Johnson] basically made the decision for me, so I broke out.”
Kittle, on third down, hadn’t gotten inside Gardner-Johnson, who broke up the short pass from Garoppolo to make it fourth-and-two. But on the fourth down call, Shanahan was right to call time and switch the play. The wideouts cleared out the space and forced the Saints into man coverage on Kittle. Garoppolo led him perfectly and hit Kittle precisely at the first-down mark, the 35-yard line. Gardner-Johnson dove at Kittle’s legs. He missed. Kittle turned upfield along the left sideline.
Kittle was unchallenged till midfield. Williams reached and unintentionally grabbed Kittle’s facemask with his right hand, and Kittle became a bucking maniac. He reminded me of Mark Bavaro in that 1986 Giants-49ers game, carrying Ronnie Lott for 12 yards and needing three Niners to bring him down. Funny thing: Kittle wasn’t upset that Williams gabbed and tugged the mask. “I knew he’d get flagged for it, so I was actually happy—it just meant 15 more yards for us,’’ he said.
“So,” I said, “what’s going through your mind as this guys grabbing your facemask and not letting go, and two other guys join in to try to take you down? You remember?”
“Get as many yards as I can, and hold onto the damn football.”
From the contact/facemask-hold by Williams till three Saints hogtied him down: 20 yards.
The gain: 39 yards. Add the 14 yards (half the distance to the goal line) for the facemask call, and San Francisco had first-and-10 at the Saints’ 14.
The little fourth-and-two gambit—Shanahan’s last-millisecond timeout, the efficient and necessary Bourne and Sanders clearout, and the 37-yard Kittle run, looking like a bull rider in one of those Texas bars—netted 53 yards. Fifty-three yards! Not bad for a guy who’d caught only 48 balls in four years at Iowa before the Niners saw something athletic and tough in him in the scouting process.
“It was pretty fun,” Kittle said.
“Your biggest play ever?” I asked.
“With what was at stake, probably.”
The Niners’ bench went nuts on the play. “Most people would go down and complain to the refs about the facemask,” Richard Sherman said. “He was like, I’m going to bully you all the way to the end zone or until you stop me. We don’t win the game without that play.”
Shanahan was already thinking of what to call after the fourth-and-two conversion. “Kittle took care of that,” he said.
“Football’s the best thing in the world,” Kittle said, practically gushing over the phone from Louisiana. (I was gushing too, after that ridiculous game.) “What this means to us, what it means to the Saints, what it means to the fans, who were incredible. The team aspect of the game, the way everyone here feels like a part of something special . . . that’s what it is—special. Now, we’ve got 24 hours to celebrate this bad boy. Then we’re onto next week. I can’t wait to play more football back in San Francisco.”
Interesting road now. With the Seattle loss at the Rams on Sunday night, San Francisco takes over first place and the top NFC seed at 11-2. The Falcons and Rams come to Santa Clara in the next two weeks, while 10-3 Seattle is at Carolina and home to Arizona in the next two weeks. There’s a real chance the San Francisco-at-Seattle game in Week 17 could be immense. The division title, a first-round bye and the dreaded five seed all could be at stake Dec. 29 at CenturyLink Field. That game might mean more than the one Sunday in New Orleans, but I have no idea how it could be any more fun and compelling.