One of the great football games happened on this date, two years ago.
I was down in New Orleans* on a service trip, and we had a free day before our departure. We ventured into the city to watch the Saints play the San Francisco 49ers in the divisional round of the playoffs.
*It was a pretty wild time to be down in New Orleans. The Saints were in the playoffs. LSU was in the national championship game. And the game was in the Superdome.
We found a bar, which was quiet and subdued and … wait, that’s not true. It was loud and crazy and hot and smelly and intensely Southern. I have no idea where it was or what it was called. I do remember they were serving free food. It’s hard to forget that.
The first half was mostly uneventful. I ate and observed and ate some more. But man, Saints fans are passionate. Everyone in the bar was tuned to the game, everyone cheered in rhythm, it was like a college atmosphere. And this was just one of hundreds, maybe thousands of bars in New Orleans where everyone had their eye on the game.
At halftime, I walked outside to get some air and recorded this video.
And then the fun starts. The 49ers are up 20-14 at the start of the fourth quarter. The Saints start with good field position and kick a field goal to cut the deficit to 20-17. The 49ers and Saints trade three-and-outs, then the 49ers kick a field goal to go up 23-17.
Down six, and with seven and a half minutes left, Drew Brees drives the Saints down the field with methodical precision. A 13-yard pass to Devery Handerson, an 11 yard pass to Marques Colston, a 4-yard pass to Robert Meachem, a 5 yard pass to Darren Sproles. Finally, another short pass to Sproles, but this time he runs past the linebackers, avoids the safeties, gets a block, and runs into the end zone for a 44-yard touchdown. The place erupts. The Saints take the lead, 24-23. There are four minutes left.
The 49ers start at the 20. Alex Smith completes a short pass to Kendall Hunter and then completes a deep pass to Vernon Davis to move them into Saints territory. Then, out of nowhere, a designed run for Smith. He gets some good blocks and sprints into the end zone for a 27-yard touchdown. They go for two and fail, but it doesn’t matter – the 49ers have the lead with 2:11 left. The bar goes quiet.
And then Drew Brees takes over once again. He starts the drive with short passes, leading his receivers out-of-bounds to stop the clock. And then, he goes down the middle for Jimmy Graham, who catches the pass with his 6-foot-7 frame and breaks away from the San Francisco secondary. The bar erupts, cheering for Jimmy Graham as he passes midfield, passes the 40, the 30, the 20, the 10, the goal line. Everyone is jumping up and down, screaming and cheering with unabashed joy, hugging anyone in sight, chanting who dat. It is quite a sight. Cars are honking their horns outside, and then even those sounds are drowned out when the Saints convert their two-point attempt to go up 32-29.
Well, the Saints’ drive was quick, too quick really, and the 49ers still have about 90 seconds left, needing just a field goal to tie. They start deep in Saints territory, but Vernon Davis catches a deep pass for 47 yards, pushing the 49ers back into Saints territory. Frank Gore catches another pass, and now the 49ers are on the 14-yard line, well within field goal range. The clock is ticking, the 49ers can’t call a timeout, and Smith spikes the ball. They can still run two or three plays to the end zone, which would give them the win. A field goal would send it to overtime. Smith goes down the middle to Davis, who makes a difficult catch in the end zone for a touchdown. The 49ers take the lead, 36-32. Davis takes off his helmet, and he’s crying – this is just three years after former head coach Mike Singletary called him uncoachable.
The bar, meanwhile, becomes a hostile environment, filled with groans and obscenities and drunken stupors. The Saints have nine seconds left, but the game is effectively over. They try a miracle play, but of course it doesn’t work, and the game ends. The 49ers move on to the NFC Championship, and the Saints are done. We leave. Soon we’re on our way back to Boston.
It was an historic game – a miraculous fourth quarter with four lead changes, 34 total points, and a game-winning touchdown. Sure, I wanted to see the Saints win, I wanted to see those fans erupt with cheers as the game ticked down to its final seconds, but it wasn’t meant to be.
Well, yes, this story has a happy ending. The following week, the 49ers faced the Giants in the NFC Championship game. The Giants won in overtime and then beat the Patriots in the Superbowl. If the Saints had won, then I have, like, no idea what could have happened in that championship game. Maybe the Giants still win. Maybe they don’t. Either way, I’m glad that things played out the way they did.