It's been four days since the San Francisco 49ers' 27-24 overtime victory against the New Orleans Saints. It was a must-win for the two 4-4 clubs. After all, the difference between 5-4 and 4-5 is historically huge when it comes to a team's playoff chances. Since 2002, 49% of teams that have started the season 5-4 have made the playoffs. That percentage drops to 13% for a team that starts off 4-5. That difference means more to the 49ers than the Saints. After all, even with Sunday's loss, the Saints are somehow still in command of the NFC South. However, the 49ers are in a different situation. Now sitting at 5-4, they are still in third place in the NFC West, three games behind the leading Arizona Cardinals, a game behind the Seattle Seahawks, and still fighting for they playoff lives.
Despite still leading their division, Saints fans are still bitter over the overtime loss to the 49ers and a controversial ending to the fourth quarter. All I can say to those still frustrated on how the that quarter ended is, "49ers fans know how you feel."
On Sunday, there were five seconds left in regulation with the game tied up 24-24 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. Saints quarterback Drew Brees had just spiked the ball after getting his team to the 49ers' 47 yard line. He lined up in the shotgun, dropped back, moved up into the pocket and let go of a Hail Mary pass that made it all the way to tight end Jimmy Graham, who leaped in the end zone and hauled in the touchdown. The crowd at the Superdome erupted in cheers as they witnessed an exciting finish to an already great game.
Their Saints had won the game on yet another amazing play by the team's two best players in Brees and Graham. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh even threw his play calling sheets into the air in frustration as he watched his 49ers lose their third straight game. It would be the team's first three-game losing streak since he took over as head coach. The 49ers' postseason hopes, which were already on life support, looked very bleak at best.
Hold on a second. What was that on the field? It was a yellow flag. Graham, along with Saints fans at the game, stared in disbelief. Was this really going to get called back? Indeed it was. The call was offensive pass interference on Graham, nullifying the spectacular play. Graham had been flagged for pushing off on 49ers defensive back Perrish Cox, who sold it very well.
Graham argues the call
The fourth quarter would end in a tie and the 49ers would go on to win the game in overtime. Was it the correct call? Yes. Should it have been called on a Hail Mary play where, typically, almost anything goes? Maybe not, but it was still the correct call.
How will this one play and one penalty impact the remainder of the season for both teams? We'll have to wait and see.
Rewind almost exactly one year.
The setting was the same. We were at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome in New Orleans. The opponents were the same and the situation was -- different, yet still strangely similar.
The 49ers led 20-17 with 3:18 remaining in the game as Brees dropped back from the 49ers' 35 yard line. Linebacker Ahmad Brooks hits Brees, the ball pops out of his hands and into the waiting arms of a very alert Patrick Willis. 49ers fans watching on television jumped up and cheered as the 49ers would take over near midfield while holding onto a three point lead with 3:12 left on the clock. Patrick Willis held up the ball getting ready to celebrate.
Hold on a second. What was that on the field behind him? It was a yellow flag. Brooks had been flagged for a personal foul -- contact to the neck of the quarterback. It was a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down for the Saints.
Harbaugh and 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, yelling from the sidelines, argued that it was a hit on the shoulder. The Saints would go on to tie the game on the extended drive, and eventually win 23-20 in the closing seconds of regulation.
During the days following the game, debate ran rampant among the media on whether Brooks should have been flagged. When he was fined $15,750 for the hit, even more public opinion surfaced. Former Baltimore Ravens great Ray Lewis called it "the most embarrassing call in the National Football League since the Tuck Rule and Tom Brady."
Brooks would eventually win an appeal of the fine.
It is entirely possible the Saints would have won the game anyways. However, it would have been an uphill battle for them as they watched valuable time come off the clock.
How did this one play and one penalty impact the remainder of the season for both teams?
The Saints would have still made the playoffs as a wild-card, having beaten the Arizona Cardinals during the regular season and owning the tie-breaker between the two teams.
The 49ers situation would have been very different. They would have finished the season 13-3 and home field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. The 49ers split their series with Seattle but had a slightly better division record. Instead of playing two tough road games (at Green Bay and at Carolina) before meeting up with the Seahawks at CenturyLink Field in the NFC Championship game, they would have hosted a Divisional playoff game before possibly hosting the NFC Championship game themselves. It would have been the Seahawks that would have had to go on the road during the postseason.
Perhaps linebacker NaVorro Bowman never gets injured in the NFC Championship, which would have impacted the 49ers' 2014 season as well. Maybe it would have been Colin Kaepernick and Jim Harbaugh hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy after beating the Denver Broncos in Super Bowl XLVIII, the 49ers' second appearance in the league championship game in as many years.
That's a lot of what-ifs. Perhaps the 49ers lose in the Divisional round and the Seahawks still go on to win it all. The point is, the 49ers' path to a championship would have been much easier had their matchup with the Saints ended differently. It was a big loss for the 49ers and devastating towards their playoff positioning.
This past Sunday, Ahmad Brooks did get a little redemption against the Saints. With 5:25 left in overtime, he hit Brees from behind, knocking the ball loose and allowing linebacker Chris Borland to pounce on it. The 49ers would kick the game-winning field goal on the next play.
With this victory, Harbaugh won his 20th career road game, becoming the second fastest head coach in franchise history to do so.