NEW ORLEANS -- The game -- check that -- the season was on the line for the San Francisco 49ers late Sunday afternoon.
Trailing the New Orleans Saints by three with 94 seconds remaining in regulation, the Niners faced fourth-and-10 from their own 22-yard line. Fail to convert and the Saints take over on downs, run out the clock and San Francisco falls to 4-5 on the season. And, as ESPN Stats & Information pointed out before the game, only 13 percent of teams since 1990 to start with a 4-5 record have qualified for the playoffs.
So Colin Kaepernick took the snap, rolled out and surveyed the field as he bought time.
“It turned into a scramble,” Kaepernick said.
As the Saints defenders flushed Kaepernick to his right, near the Niners’ sideline, Kaepernick’s eyes darted about the field, looking for someone, anyone to extend the play, the game, and yes, the goals for this season.
That’s when he spied Michael Crabtree on the opposite end of things. All by himself.
“Crab made a great play getting across the field. Our offensive line did a great job giving us time.”
So much so that Kaepernick was able to stop his running motion, plant his foot, set himself -- truly, that was the key -- and hurl a deep pass across his body. Officially, the pass was a 51-yard completion, though the ball traveled through the air for closer to 60 yards.
And when it came down, it nestled into the waiting arms of Crabtree at the Saints’ 27-yard line.
“He was the third or fourth guy I looked at while I was scrambling,” Kaepernick said with a smile. “So I was happy I found somebody who was open on that.”
Saints cornerback Corey White said a zone breakdown allowed Crabtree to roam free on the play.
“When he was throwing it,” White said, “I didn’t know who he was throwing to. They just made a good play. We weren’t defending that.
“It was a zone and he got behind us. It was a Cover-2 zone. When coverage breaks down, you just have to find someone and cover them. All of the zones get thrown out the window. You just have to find someone and cover them.”
Nobody was within 15 yards of Crabtree, though.
And no, Crabtree was not exactly thrilled with his lot in the game. Not after catching just two other passes for 11 yards.
“I’m a third-down receiver,” Crabtree told reporters. “I mean, I’m like the third option. So I come in and do my job.
“Fourth down, I guess when they need me. I guess that’s when I play.”
Truth be told, Crabtree, who entered the game with seven drops on the season, was targeted eight times.
The reception put the Niners in field-goal position and Phil Dawson’s 45-yarder with 1:08 to play tied the game at 24. Dawson then won it with 5:14 remaining in overtime with a 35-yarder after Ahmad Brooks’ strip-sack of Drew Brees and Chris Borland’s recovery of the fumble.
None of it, though, would have been possible without Kaepernick’s fourth-down heave, and Crabtree’s apparently reluctant catch.
“Great vision and great concentration by Michael,” Niners coach Jim Harbaugh said. “[Kaepernick] escaped in the pocket, bought time and found a receiver.
“That wasn’t the intent of the play. Colin does a great job of that. I’m glad he did it that way. I am glad he has the arm strength to get it that far.”
Plus, it kept the 49ers alive in the playoff race … for at least another week.