In a game with major NFC playoff implications, the Niners had just enough firepower to hold off New Orleans and leave the Superdome with a scintillating 48-46 victory. The win was San Francisco's first in New Orleans since 2014, and it gave the Niners their first 11-win season since 2013 and their best start through 13 games since 1997.
San Francisco kicker Robbie Gould booted a 30-yard field goal as the clock expired to send the Niners to victory. The kick came after a 39-yard completion to tight end George Kittle plus a face mask penalty on Marcus Williams.
On fourth-and-2 from San Francisco's 33, Kittle ran an option route, beat a would-be tackler and dragged Williams, who held on to Kittle's facemask for much of the run, to the Saints' 28-yard line. Kittle's 36 yards after contact were the most on a catch in his career.
"That was as cool of a game as I've been a part of," Niners coach Kyle Shanahan said. "A lot of emotions back and forth. It'll probably hit me a little bit harder when I get on the plane. The guys just kept battling. ... I thought I was going to have to call a number of more plays to get into field goal range, but Kittle took care of it fast, which probably saved a few years of my life."
The combined 94 points were the most in a regular-season game between 10-win teams in NFL history, according to research by the Elias Sports Bureau. It also made for the highest-scoring 49ers-Saints game in the history of the two teams' meetings, per ESPN Stats & Information research.
With the victory, the 49ers became the 12th team since 1978 to win 11 or more games after winning fewer than five in the previous season. The Niners clinched a playoff spot later Sunday night -- and took over the No. 1 seed in the NFC -- when the Los Angeles Rams beat the Seattle Seahawks 28-12.
Unless the Seahawks lose one of their next two games and the Niners win the next two, the Week 17 game between the division rivals will determine the NFC West champion and go a long way in determining the top seed in the conference.
The loss was the Saints' sixth straight in a regular-season game against a team with at least 10 wins, and it dropped New Orleans to No. 3 in the NFC playoff picture, behind San Francisco and Green Bay.
Sunday's game was San Francisco's third straight against a team with an .800 or better winning percentage, making the Niners the first team to play that many in a row this late in the season in the Super Bowl era. They came through it 2-1, with the lone loss coming on a last-second field goal last week against Baltimore.
"This game meant a lot," quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said. "It was a big one for us. It was a big game. These two in a row, they were playoff-atmosphere games, so I think that will serve us well going forward."
For the 10-3 Saints, the loss removes them from the top seat in the NFC playoff picture and tosses them into a jumbled mess that includes the Niners, Packers, Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. New Orleans has already clinched the NFC South division but is competing for a first-round bye and, potentially, the top seed in the NFC. While New Orleans holds the tiebreaker against Seattle, it now doesn't have one against the 49ers and Packers.
The Niners had to conjure their most resilient performance in a game that featured fireworks right from the start. In addition to the 94 combined points, the two sides combined for 981 yards of total offense and 53 first downs while averaging a whopping 7.5 yards per play.
A wild first half saw the teams combine for 55 points and 581 yards -- the first time two teams had that many combined points and yards in the first half since Pittsburgh defeated Indianapolis in Week 8 in 2014. The Niners' defense settled in just enough in the second half, limiting the Saints to field goals instead of touchdowns and forcing the first lost fumble for New Orleans this season. The San Francisco offense, meanwhile, continued to roll.
The high-caliber football played Sunday should have been no surprise, given that it was only the fifth game between two teams with two or fewer losses this late in the season in the past 35 years.
Garoppolo and the passing game did most of the heavy lifting to make it happen; he finished 26-of-35 for 349 yards with four touchdowns and one interception for a passer rating of 131.7. The four-touchdown effort puts Garoppolo with Steve Young and Jeff Garcia as the only Niners quarterbacks to have at least three games with four or more touchdowns in a season.
"Jimmy Garoppolo being clutch down the stretch, this is a big game and he played big time," cornerback Richard Sherman said. "He played like the best quarterback in football today. He beat a legend. Drew Brees gave them a chance at the end, got them a touchdown, but you've got to give Jimmy Garoppolo credit. That was a shootout, and he got the last shot."
Receiver Emmanuel Sanders was Garoppolo's favorite target, finishing with 157 yards on seven catches with a touchdown. Sanders also threw a 35-yard touchdown, giving the 49ers five touchdown passes in a game for the first time since 1990. Sanders became the first Niner since San Francisco joined the NFL in 1950 to throw for and catch a touchdown in the same game; it is the second time he has done it in his career.
Kittle added 67 yards on six catches with a career-high 50 of those yards coming after contact. That performance pushed Kittle past Hall of Famer Kellen Winslow for the fourth-most receiving yards by a tight end in his first three seasons. Kittle needs just 129 in the next three games to pass Mike Ditka for first on that list.
"George is just the best in the world," right tackle Mike McGlinchey said. "There's really not much you can say other than that. ... He's probably our best player, and we needed him to come up huge in that moment, and he did."
Following the loss to the Ravens, the Niners' offense took the blame and the players lamented a narrow loss in a game that was there for the taking. The defeat didn't alter the Niners' postseason trajectory much, but it did narrow the margin for error.
That's still the case after a wildly entertaining Sunday in New Orleans.
"It means we are 11-2," Shanahan said. "So we will see what else happens. Everyone likes to talk about that each week. It would be more fun to talk about if everyone else had bad records, but there are a lot of teams that have good records.
"It's one week at a time. If you start to feel good about yourself, it's going to be over for you fast. You get real down and count yourself out, you're not giving yourself a chance. Because it's going to come down to the last week with a number of teams in the NFC, and we are looking forward to next week."