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Winning Every Way Imaginable: 49ers Are Sitting Pretty in NFC Playoff Race After Outgunning the Saints

After winning with defense and a punishing ground game early in the season, the 49ers got a virtuoso performance from Jimmy Garoppolo on a day when they needed it. Plus, the Ravens’ defense is back and looking great—but sadly, we can’t say the same for the NFL’s officiating, as some head-scratching calls blemished the AFC title game rematch.
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The 49ers, who came into Sunday’s big NFC showdown against the Saints with double-digits in the win column, have had their share of signature moments through this renaissance of a 2019 season. And with many of those wins credited to the defense, it was about time they got one on offense.

It was no surprise, either, that this game would come down to offense. The two teams had combined for 24 possessions, 91 points scored and just four punts. Each was over 450 yards in yards from scrimmage. Neither of the very proud defenses on the Superdome turf could do much to stop anything.

San Francisco was looking at fourth-and-two at its own 33-yard line with just 39 seconds showing, New Orleans leading 46–45. Head coach Kyle Shanahan called his second timeout and sent Jimmy Garoppolo in with a concept to beat man coverage that would have tight end George Kittle motioning across the bottom of a bunch formation, behind Kendrick Bourne and Emmanuel Sanders, with the idea to create space for Kittle to get the two yards needed.

“I had a pretty good feeling on it,” QB Jimmy Garoppolo told me from the winning locker room, about half an hour after the game. “But you still have to win the route. And George did a great job of that, kind of using the other guys as a natural pick.

Garoppolo then paused and added, “I mean, it really worked out great. He did the rest with the ball in his hands.”

Did he ever.

At the snap, Bourne broke upfield, and Sanders executed an in-breaking route that created traffic in front of Saints rookie safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, assigned to Kittle. That cleared the space Kittle needed to get to the left flat, where Garoppolo put the ball. Gardner-Johnson dove at him as he caught it, missed and Kittle burst up the field, eventually burying what looked like a 20-yard stiff arm into Saints safety Marcus Williams’s grill.

By the time Kittle was done dragging Williams down the field, he’d picked up 39 yards, with 15 more tacked on after Williams grabbed his face mask, since that was all he could do to get Kittle down.

“The play call from Kyle I thought was awesome, it had a couple different options on it—George obviously being one of them,” Garoppolo continued. “He just burned his guy on the out route and made it pretty easy for me just to get him the ball. And once you get that guy the ball in space, who knows what’s gonna happen?”

In this case, Kittle took the visitors from their own 33 in a last-ditch situation to the Saints 14. Two plays later, Robbie Gould easily delivered the game-winning kick, putting a 30-yarder right down main street to lock up a 48–46 win.

And by midnight, after the Seahawks’ loss to the Rams, the 49ers were comfortably sitting with the NFC’s No. 1 seed with three weeks left in the season. But winning this wild one was about more than just that.

* * *

Week 14 is in the books (almost... Giants at Eagles on MNF tonight)! And as always, we’ve got a lot to cover, including…

• The rebirth of the Ravens defense.

• How the officials marred an AFC title game rematch.

• A preview of HBO’s Saban/Belichick documentary.

• A visit with recently fired Panthers coach Ron Rivera.

But we’re starting with the craziest, most fun game of the week.

* * *

Before pledging five game balls to the York family—mourning the death of Tony York, son of owner Dr. John York, one year ago—and reiterating the importance of the game from a human perspective, Shanahan addressed his team in the locker room after the game, stressing why the win was meaningful football-wise.

“I’m so proud of you guys, and so pumped to be a part of this team,” he told the players. “Every game’s been different. It feels like we’ve been through every type of game this year that’s possible. We haven’t. We got a different type of game today. Guys, whatever happens, you guys rise to the challenge and get it done. I don’t care how you do it, you guys find a way.”

Earlier in the year, this way may not have been possible. The 49ers were playing without their tackles for more than a month. They didn’t trade for wideout Emmanuel Sanders until late October. They hadn’t gotten as much from rookie receiver Deebo Samuel yet. And Garoppolo was coming back from ACL surgery.

So they leaned on their defense. In fact, Shanahan explained to me after the Niners beat the Rams in October that his 41 run calls, coming despite averaging less than three yards per carry, were designed to shorten the game and play into that unit’s hands. The offense would come, he promised. It’d just take some time for the vision to come to life because of all those circumstances.

“Our team is built to win different ways and we talk about it all the time,” Garoppolo said. “It’s complementary football. When they cause the turnover, we go score. When we [turn the ball over], we hold them to a field goal. How the offense and defense play together, it’s a good combination we got right now.”

The difference is pretty noticeable. Sanders (seven catches, 157, TD) has been an awesome fit. Samuel (five catches, 76 yards; two carries, 33 yards) is coming of age. Bookend tackles Joe Staley and Mike McGlinchey are back in the lineup. And Garoppolo is just now hitting his stride.

The truth? By the end of September, his knee felt O.K., but it took a little longer to regain the rhythm and timing it takes to really play quarterback at a high level in the NFL.

“I think it’s just more confidence, and you build confidence through playing well and, obviously, getting wins,” he said. “With the whole knee thing, it really hasn’t been an issue since probably the first couple weeks. But I think just getting back into the rhythm, and obviously having a tremendous team around me, makes my job a lot easier.”

It also bought him plenty of time to build himself up to where he is now. He only went over 30 attempts twice in San Francisco’s first seven games, mostly because the Niners could run the ball and play great defense and, as such, didn’t need him to do much more than that. So without the weight of the world of his shoulders, he could find himself again.

“No doubt, especially early on with the struggles, and whatever we were dealing with offensively,” he said. “Now that we’ve started to catch our stride, when you’re playing complementary football like that, it really turns it into a team game. You’re not relying on one guy or one side of the ball, and I think that’s what makes a good football team.”

Just as the defense carried a lot of games early on, the offense took this one over, fighting back from deficits of 20–7 and 27–14, and going blow-for-blow on the road with a Hall-of-Fame quarterback (Drew Brees) and generational offensive play-caller (Sean Payton).

And as the Niners saw a 42–33 lead turn into a 46–45 deficit, their offense had one more punch to throw. Even better, based on their demeanor on the sideline, the offensive players knew it’d be a haymaker. “It was very calm,” Garoppolo said.

In delivering the final blow, Kittle showed how much confidence he and his teammates are playing with, matching the bravado that the guys on the other side of the ball have had all year.

“Oh yeah,” Garoppolo said, laughing. “Can you tell?”

You sure didn’t have to look too hard to see it.

* * *

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NFL OFFICIATING IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH, PLAIN AND SIMPLE

It’d be nice to have a week without an officiating controversy, but that is not this week. Let’s go through exactly how the refs took points off the board in Foxboro on Sunday.

• With 15 seconds left in the third quarter, Patriots S Devin McCourty jarred the ball loose from Chiefs TE Travis Kelce. Stephon Gilmore picked the ball up and had a reasonable shot at scoring—or so it seemed. As that unfolded, whistles blew and Kelce was called down. The Patriots burned their final challenge. They got the ball on their own 43, due to Gilmore’s clear recovery (the ball was dead where he picked it up, per the rules).

• Six plays later, Tom Brady popped a swing pass to N’Keal Harry in the left flat, and Harry tightroped down the sideline. The officials called Harry out at the three-yard line. The replay showed Harry keeping his feet inbounds and clearly getting inside the pylon for what should’ve been a touchdown. But without any challenges left, the Patriots had no recourse but to accept the call.

• The Chiefs get a stop from there, forcing a short field goal from Nick Folk.

This isn’t to say the Patriots would’ve won the game, if not for the officials. The team had four chances to get in the end zone after the missed call, starting at the Chiefs three-yard line, and couldn’t do it. That’s on their struggling offense. That said, the officials took four points off the board in a fairly direct way there. 

This would affect the game later on too—had Harry’s touchdown counted, the Patriots, who would’ve been down 23-20 and not 23-16, could’ve played for a field goal in the final two minutes. Instead, Brady failed to convert a fourth-and-three from the Chiefs five-yard line, when Bashaud Breeland batted away a bid to get the ball to Julian Edelman to tie it with 1:11 left. Then, there’s the fact that Gilmore might’ve scored had the officials gotten the Kelce fumble right.

We could go into other missed calls from that game, but you probably don’t want to hear about that. You probably just want it fixed.

Head referee Jerome Boger explained the missed call to pool reporter Mike Reiss like this: “What led to it was the covering official on the wing was blocked out by defenders. The downfield official who was on the goal line and looking back toward the goal line toward the field of play had that he stepped out at the three-yard line. So they got together and conferred on that. The final ruling was that he was out of bounds at the three-yard line.”

I’m sorry, but that’s not good enough. On this same field a few weeks ago, the Cowboys got hosed on a couple of crucial tripping calls. These sorts of things seem to be coming on an every-week basis now.

Back in March, before the owners meetings, I texted 25 coaches and asked them, simply, if they wanted a sky judge. Nineteen responded. Fifteen said yes. Two said they didn’t know. Another two said no, though both would be open to changing their mind for the right proposal. Days later, the 32 head coaches organized to try and get the idea in front of owners, and making pass interference reviewable wound up being the compromise.

The time for compromises is now over. A sky judge, done the right away, would backstop officials who simply have too much to pay attention to in a lightning-fast, complex, and busy guys. It could take the challenge system away from the coaches. It could utilize technology in a way that won’t make the NFL look like it’s stuck in 1995 anymore. And you have owners, like Philly’s Jeffrey Lurie, who are already onboard.

This shouldn’t be so difficult. This morning, we should be talking about a struggling Patriots offense that, if you eliminate a flea-flicker and a halfback pass, mustered just 206 yards of total offense. We should be talking about Patrick Mahomes gutting out a right hand injury, and becoming the first quarterback under 25 years old to beat Brady and Belichick in Foxboro. We should be talking about two defenses that stood tall in a big spot.

Instead, we’re talking about the officiating, which happens way too often.

* * *

THE RAVENS DEFENSE IS BACK IN THE DISCUSSION

The Bills had just drawn a 26-yard pass interference call—Marlon Humphrey slightly bumped Cole Beasley downfield. That created a first-and-10 at the Ravens 18-yard line as the teams went to the sideline for the two-minute warning, with Baltimore clinging to a 24-17 lead. And veteran Brandon Carr made it simple for his teammates.

“We gotta play with our hair on fire,” Carr said.

That’s not exactly how the Ravens were playing defense earlier in the year, but it is now.

First-and-10: Devin Singletary stuffed after a two-yard gain.

Second-and-eight: Ravens bring pressure, force Josh Allen to throw it away.

Third-and-eight: Ravens bring pressure, force Allen to throw it away.

Fourth-and-eight was more interesting. The Bills picked up Baltimore’s blitz. Allen had a clean look, and he put the ball in the right place for receiver John Brown. And Baltimore’s Marcus Peters—traded for a little over a month ago—got there first, reaching around Brown to knock the ball harmlessly to the turf.

“You know I'm not telling you the call,” linebacker Matt Judon said, laughing, over the phone. “But we was in coverage and Marcus made just made a play, Marcus made a heck of a play. He's a big-time player and he was out there one-on-one, man, and he made the play.”

That’s significant, too—the Ravens needed a play on defense to win a game. And got it.

Because of the pyrotechnics of the Baltimore offense, moments like that have been few and far between in 2019. But give credit to coach John Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Wink Martindale for being honest with themselves even as the offense carried the team early in the year.

They knew what they were seeing wasn’t a real Raven defense. So they started making moves. They cut Timmy Williams to send a jolt to the group, emphasizing that, as a whole, they needed to get tougher. They signed veteran linebacker Josh Bynes, and he came in and had a settling affect on the front seven right away.

And just as they were getting Jimmy Smith back at corner, they traded for Peters. All of this, in the year they said bye to Eric Weddle, C.J. Mosley and Terrell Suggs, aimed at restoring the standard that had been upheld by those guys and others like them for two decades.

“That's who we are,” Judon said. “We had to get back to that, man. It was too many holes and too many leaks in our defense. And don't underestimate what the front office did, bringing in players and switching some things up. Kudos to them, they saw a chink in the armour and they got it fixed, and then we made some trades, got Pete (Peters) and then we brought on a couple other people and we're playing Raven defense right now.

“We're doing that and that's what we're accustomed to and used to.”

And after 14 weeks, you add it to what Lamar Jackson and the offensive guys have done, and you get the best team in football.

* * *

Rivera was let go after the Panthers fell to 5–7.

Rivera was let go after the Panthers fell to 5–7.

RIVERA BIDES HIS TIME

Ex-Panthers coach Ron Rivera was wrapping up a day with some Navy SEALs on Friday when I got hold of him—he set the trip up through the Navy SEAL Family Foundation—and this particular excursion was just a piece of what he hopes is a four-week reset.

There are other things on his list too. He’s got books he wants to read, family he wants to spend time with. The commonality? All of it is pointed towards having his mind right by the end of the season, when the 2020 hiring cycle heats up and his focus will move back to the NFL. And on this day, it was easy for him to explain the value he was taking.

“It put in perspective what happened to me,” said Rivera, the son of an Army officer himself. “These are men and women that are serving our nation. They’re putting their lives on the line for us. So what happened to me is miniscule compared to what these folks go through.”

Of course, that doesn’t mean it was easy. On Tuesday, Rivera’s eight-plus seasons in Carolina came to an end. He finished up 76-63-1 with three NFC South titles, four trips to the playoffs and that 15–1 season in 2015 that ended in a trip to Super Bowl 50.

And yet, to say his run in Charlotte ended abruptly probably isn’t quite accurate. Yes, that it came down on a Tuesday in early December was a little unusual. But from the time the franchise was sold about 18 months ago, Rivera was aware, as was everyone else in the organization, that it was certainly possible new owner David Tepper would want to bring in his own people.

So it was when Tepper called Rivera into his office two days after a loss to the sad-sack Redskins and said something along the lines of, I’m just thinking about going forward, and this is what I’d like to do. The level-headed coach understood. “The more we talked about it, the more sense it made,” he says. It hurt, to be sure, but only in that he couldn’t finish what he’d started.