NEW ORLEANS -- When Robbie Gould's 30-yard field goal sailed through the uprights as time expired, giving San Francisco a wild 48-46 victory over the Saints and moving the 49ers one step closer to their first playoff berth in six years, a river of emotion flowed along their sideline. Players and coaches jumped and hugged and high-fived each other, releasing the frustration of five consecutive non-winning seasons and close losses this year in potential statement games. It was a game in which a lesser team would have folded on multiple occasions, like after the Niners surrendered touchdowns on their first four defensive series, or after allowing the Saints to march 76 yards in 90 seconds for the go-ahead touchdown with under a minute to play.
But there is something special about this group. They call themselves a family, which was never more evident than when 49ers CEO Jed York and backup defensive tackle tackle Solomon Thomas held a long embrace outside the locker room following the win. Each had tears in his eyes that transcended the game, because each knows the pain of losing a sibling to suicide. Thomas lost his sister on Jan. 23, 2018. She was not only his sister, but his best friend; and as much as he tried to cope with her death, the first anniversary was like reliving the initial news all over again. So he had an idea of what York might be feeling Sunday, one day after the first anniversary of York's younger brother, Tony York, taking his own life.
"For him, it was probably the most emotional day he's probably had in the last year -- at least that's the way it was for me," Thomas said. "It was an honor just to be able to bring him that win -- him and Tony and [the] entire York family. They mean the world to us. Hopefully getting the win brings a lot of peace and good memories of Tony."
After each game, ownership usually meets in the locker room with coach Kyle Shanahan and general manager John Lynch. Last Sunday in Baltimore was no exception, although it felt differently beyond the pain of a 20-17 showdown loss to the Ravens. Near the end of the meeting, Dr. John York, the team's co-chairman, began to cry and left the room. Shanahan and Lynch were at a loss, so Jed explained that his dad was struggling with the approaching anniversary of Tony's death. Shanahan and Lynch decided that on the bus ride from the stadium a gesture needed to be made, then petitioned the league to wear "TY" decals on the players' helmets for the Saints game.
"We just felt it was the appropriate thing to do," Lynch said.
The family held a remembrance for Tony on Saturday in Youngstown, Ohio, where the senior Yorks live, then flew to New Orleans for a showdown that matched 10-2 teams battling for potential home-field advantage through the playoffs. If nothing else, Sunday gave the family a welcome diversion, as the game was as entertaining as it was important.
The Saints, with a vocal Superdome crowd at their backs, appeared ready to put the game away early as their first four possessions ended with quarterback Drew Brees throwing for three touchdowns (all to tight ends, the first two to Jared Cook, who left with a concussion late in the first quarter, and the last to Josh Hill) then rushing for another. Coach Sean Payton could not have scripted a better opening against a defense that was allowing just 15.3 points per game, second-fewest in the league.
Unfortunately for New Orleans, its defense had no answer for the San Francisco offense, which relied on big plays to stay within shouting distance. The unit had run just 14 plays midway through the second quarter yet only trailed 27-21. Among their chunk plays: a 75-yard touchdown reception by Emmaunel Sanders and a 35-yard score by Raheem Mostert off a double-reverse pass from Sanders, who became the first player in team history to have touchdowns as a passer and receiver in the same game; a 28-yard run by Matt Breida, receptions of 25 yards by Deebo Samuel and 20 by George Kittle, and an 18-yard run by Mostert.
In the first 22-plus minutes.
The Saints were without injured starting linebackers A.J. Klein and Kiko Alonso, and it showed in the form of miscommunication, inexact gap fits, breakdowns in coverage and big-gainers by the Niners, who had 10 plays of 19 yards or longer overall. Two were by Mostert at the end of the first half, his runs of 18 and 10 yards giving San Francisco a 28-27 lead at the half. But the most damning (because it was the last) was a 39-yard catch and run by Kittle with 39 seconds left in the game. It came on fourth-and-2 from the Niners' 33-yard line. The tight end got a step on safety C.J. Gardner-Johnson in the left flat and turned upfield as Gardner-Johnson and fellow safety Marcus Williams tried to bring Kittle down. The physical Pro Bowler even drew a facemask penalty, which made the field goal by Gould a virtual fait accompli.
As the ball cleared the crossbar, ending a game in which the teams were separated by more than five points only once in the second half, with the lead changing sidelines four times, some players rushed the field and lifted Gould. For them, it felt good to have a meaningful win rather than the moral victories that came in losses to Seattleand Baltimore, potential statement games San Francisco lost by three points each. With two of their final three remaining contests coming against divisional foes Los Angeles and Seattle, the 49ers proved Sunday they can close out marquee games -- particularly those on the road. Few environments are as difficult to hold up in as the Superdome -- "I don't know if I've ever heard it that loud," said edge rusher Nick Bosa -- but the Niners never blinked. Not until after the game, when players presented game balls to the York family.
"We have a special group of people, and I'm just proud of these guys and how we have all come together, whether it's ownership, whether it's coaches, whether it's players," said Jed York, his eyes still red as he fought back tears. "It's just a really, really tight group of people. It's special."
Right tackle Mike McGlinchey was among those who addressed Dr. York afterward, telling him the win was for Tony, who attended college at nearby Tulane.
"Our team is a huge family, starting with them," McGlinchey said of the Yorks. "They're our leaders -- and this weekend, they had heavy hearts. A year ago, we lost one of our own, but he was definitely with us today at the end and helped us to a victory."