Jimmy G. seems to be heating up just as Tom Terrific appears to be slowing down.
Bouncing back from a close loss a week earlier, the San Francisco 49ers went out and took over the No. 1 playoff seeding in the NFC by coming back on the road to edge Drew Brees and the New Orleans Saints 48-46 on Sunday — and it was Jimmy Garoppolo who led the way.
This was a confidence-building, resume-burnishing victory for Garoppolo, by any measure, and it showed that the former heir apparent to Tom Brady with the New England Patriots (more on them below) could be capable of doing what it takes at crunch time in the playoffs.
“Jimmy Garoppolo being clutch down the stretch. This is a big game and he played big-time,” Niners cornerback Richard Sherman said. “He played like the best quarterback in football today. He beat a legend.”
The pass that meant the most in the final tally, the one that surely will be viewed over and over if the 49ers go deep into the postseason, was the one that Garoppolo completed on fourth-and-2 to tight end George Kittle in the final minute. That, plus a facemask penalty at the end of the play, set up Robbie Gould’s game-winning field goal as time expired.
It capped a tremendous all-around performance by the 28-year-old QB who was acquired from the Pats for a second-round draft pick: 26 of 35 for 349 yards, four TDs and one interception.
And it capped a tremendous all-around game, maybe the season’s most captivating, between a couple of top teams. San Francisco is 11-2, its best start in 22 years; New Orleans is 10-3 and already has clinched the NFC South title.
There was creative play-calling, particularly from 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan; so many back-and-forth points; Brees accounted for six TDs, five through the air, and no picks; the latest monster game by Michael Thomas (11 catches, 134 yards, one score); and, well, not a whole lot of defense from two units considered among the league’s best.
“You want to talk about (Shanahan) and Sean Payton going toe-to-toe and players executing,” said Niners wideout Emmanuel Sanders, who tossed a 35-yard touchdown pass after taking a pitch on a reverse and also scored on a 75-yard catch-and-run. “It was just a beautiful game.”
And one that will be pointed to if Garoppolo — and his team — continues to make progress.
Here are some other top topics after the 14th Sunday of the NFL regular season:
The 42-year-old Brady’s latest sub-par outing (19 of 36 for a paltry 169 yards, one TD, one INT, one heavily wrapped right arm postgame) and New England’s latest lame showing by its offense contributed to a second consecutive loss, this one by 23-16 to the Kansas City Chiefs, who became the first visiting team to win in Foxborough since October 2017 and secured the AFC West title. Also contributing: some abysmal officiating by Jerome Boger’s crew. There were three egregious calls in the second half that went against Bill Belichick and Co.: a play blown dead, because of the “down by contact” rule, when Stephon Gilmore was returning KC tight end Travis Kelce’s fumble (it was ruled a turnover on review); a TD by N’Keal Harry wiped out with a phantom out-of-bounds decision at the 3 (TV replays showed he clearly stayed in, but Belichick was out of challenges by then); a defensive pass interference ignored even though Kendall Fuller was all over receiver Phillip Dorsett. “I was 99 percent confident that I was interfered with,” Dorsett said, “but there wasn’t a call.”
NFL players’ misgivings about the medical care they receive is nothing new — in a survey of 100 players, released by the AP in 2016, fewer than half thought clubs, coaches and team doctors had the athletes’ best interests at heart — but those worries have been aired publicly with increasing frequently of late. Another example came Sunday, when Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield opined to reporters that an injury to teammate Odell Beckham Jr. “wasn’t handled the right way in our training room” and “could have been addressed earlier on.” Later, Mayfield tried to backtrack on social media.
Steel Curtain Redux
Somehow, without the injured Ben Roethlisberger, JuJu Smith-Schuster or James Conner — not to mention former superstars Antonio Brown and Le’Veon Bell — and with a third-string, undrafted rookie QB who goes by the nickname Duck, coach Mike Tomlin has the Pittsburgh Steelers at 8-5 and with a real shot at a playoff berth. Quarterback Devlin “Duck” Hodges improved to 3-0 as a starter, thanks in large part to a defense that is dominant, with a 23-17 win at Arizona. No one has more takeaways than Pittsburgh’s 33, a total boosted Sunday by two interceptions by Joe Haden and one by T.J. Watt.