The 2011 New Orleans Saints were one of the most dynamic offensive teams in NFL history. The team averaged 34.2 points per game that season, second in the league. New Orleans set an NFL record with 7,474 yards from scrimmage, and led the league in total yards, first downs, and passing yards. The Saints weren't a pass-happy team either. They averaged 133 yards per game on the ground in 2011, ranking 6th in the league. The Saints did have a historically productive passing attack though. Seven different receivers had at least 30 catches and over 400 yards receiving for the team. Tight end Jimmy Graham (99 receptions) and wideout Marques Colston (80) each had over 1,000 yards, while running back Darren Sproles (86) set an NFL record with 2,696 all-purpose yards. The most spectacular performance of the 2011 season though was turned in by Drew Brees, the Saints quarterback. Brees, among a long list of league records he shattered that year, broke Dan Marino's 27-yr. old mark for passing yards in a season, finishing with an incredible 5,476 yards.
New Orleans rolled through the regular season, winning the NFC South by four games. They won four straight games after an opening night loss to the Green Bay Packers, and closed the regular season by winning eight straight to finish 13-3 on the year. Unfortunately, all three losses were to conference opponents, causing the Saints to lose a tiebreaker to the 13-3 San Francisco 49ers for the conference's number 2 seed (the Packers would finish 15-1), and therefore costing them the bye week for the postseason. New Orleans would demolish the Detroit Lions 45-28 in a home wild card game, moving them on to the divisional round. With their record breaking offense, and much of the cast that won Super Bowl XLIV still intact, New Orleans was still considered a championship threat by many despite having to play their divisional playoff game on the road.
The San Francisco 49ers, a dynasty during the 1980's, were responsible for one of the most iconic plays in NFL history. Trailing the Dallas Cowboys during the waning minutes of the 1981 NFC Championship game, 49ers quarterback Joe Montana hit receiver Dwight Clark with a touchdown pass that sent them to Super Bowl XVI, the first of four trips to the big game during the decade. Clark's leaping reception came to be known as "The Catch", and is largely credited for springboarding them to their dynasty. San Francisco would have another miraculous playoff finish on January 3, 1999, during a wild card matchup against the Green Bay Packers. Montana's successor at quarterback, future Hall of Famer Steve Young (who would win the Niners 5th Super Bowl in 1995) found receiver Terrell Owens for the winning score on the final play of the game in what was hailed as "The Catch II". The Saints fell victim to San Francisco's talent often through the 80's and 90's, having to play them twice a year as rivals in the NFC South.
Fast forward to the 2011 season. The 49ers and Saints were no longer in the same division, and the fortunes of both franchises had flipped over the previous decade. New Orleans had won their first Super Bowl two years earlier, and had made the playoffs four times in six years under coach Sean Payton. The Niners on the other hand, had not even made playoffs in nine years. That would change in 2011 with the hiring of former NFL quarterback Jim Harbaugh as head coach. Harbaugh transformed the 49ers into a hard-nosed opportunistic team that would lead the league with an incredible +28 turnover differential. The 49ers had offensive talent, mostly built around their rugged running back Frank Gore. They also had three former top 10 draft choices in quarterback Alex Smith, tight end Vernon Davis, and receiver Michael Crabtree who were brimming with talent, but labeled as disappointing by some due to lack of consistency. San Francisco rode the strength of their defense, which allowed the second fewest points in the league and was first against the run, to a 13-3 record and the 2nd seed going into the NFC playoffs. There, they would face their old divisional foe in the high powered Saints, who they owned to the tune of a 30-11 record between 1980-2000. The postseason showdown would take place in the Saints personal house of horrors, Candlestick Park in San Francisco, CA on January 14, 2012.
New Orleans had a disastrous start to the game. They took the opening kickoff 73 yards deep into San Francisco territory, poised to grab the early lead. Saints running back Pierre Thomas fumbled on the 49ers 6-yd. line after a reception though, snuffing out a big opportunity. Adding injury to insult, Thomas suffered an injury on the play that knocked him out for the game. The Niners turned the tables quickly on the blown chance from New Orleans when quarterback Alex Smith hit tight end Vernon Davis on a 49-yd. touchdown pass to take a 7-0 lead. Things got worse for the Saints just moments later, when Brees was intercepted by 49ers defensive back Dashon Goldson, who returned it to the New Orleans 4-yd. line. San Francisco would capitalize immediately, with Smith hitting Michael Crabtree on a touchdown pass for a 14-0 advantage. The Saints unraveling continued on the ensuing kickoff, when Courtney Roby coughed the ball back to the home team, setting up a 49er field goal and a 17-0 hole early in the second quarter. New Orleans finally got on the board midway through the quarter, when Brees hit Jimmy Graham with a precise strike for a 14-yd. touchdown to close the gap to 17-7. Towards the end of the half, the Saints scored again when Brees hit Marques Colston, who made a spectacular catch along the right sideline, on a 25 yard score to grab momentum and head into the break down just 17-14.
The third period was somewhat quiet, with only San Francisco scoring on a David Akers field goal to widen their lead to 20-14. The Saints would outgain San Francisco on the day in total yardage 435-407, but New Orleans would turn the ball over five times leading directly to 17 points. The Saints were not able to run the ball effectively at all, forcing them into 66 pass attempts. Drew Brees was magnificent on the afternoon, completing 40 throws for 462 yards and four touchdowns. Darren Sproles (15 receptions for 118 yards and 1 score), Colston (9-136, 1), and Graham (5-103, 2) were the focal points of the offense, as they had been much of the year. The 49ers countered with good offensive production of their own. Gore was the game's leading rusher, with 89 of his 127 yards from scrimmage coming on the ground. San Francisco's beacons though were Alex Smith and Vernon Davis. Smith threw for 299 yards and three scores on the day, and added another rushing. Davis meanwhile, would be the game's leading receiver, with 180 yards and 2 touchdowns on 7 receptions. The inability of New Orleans to contain San Francisco's stars would haunt them all day, but particularly during one of the most exciting 4th quarters in NFL playoff history.
The two teams would trade two more field goals leading up to the midway part of the final stanza, giving the 49ers a 23-17 lead with 7:40 left. The Saints would finally take their first lead of the day on the ensuing possession. Brees went 6 for 8 during a nine play, 79-yd. drive, finding a breaking Sproles on a 44-yd. catch and run for a 24-23 lead with just 4:02 to play. Smith would hit Davis with a 37 yard completion to answer on the following drive, putting San Francisco in scoring position. The Niner quarterback then took the New Orleans defense completely off-guard, sprinting around left end for a 28-yd. touchdown run to put San Francisco back in the lead 29-24 with only 2:11 left.
The Saints would answer yet again with another haymaker of their own in this NFC heavyweight brawl. Drew Brees found his All-Pro tight end Jimmy Graham on a pass in the middle of the field in double coverage. Graham would bring in the ball on a terrific reception, bounce off two 49er defenders, and lumber for an incredible 66-yd. touchdown with just 1:37 left on the clock. New Orleans held a 32-29 lead after a 2-pt. conversion to Sproles, and looked like their ticket was booked to another NFC championship game appearance. The resilient 49ers would not go down without a fight against the NFC South champs though. Smith again hit Davis, this time for a 47 yard catch and run that put San Francisco in field goal range with the seconds ticking down. After a short completion, Smith grounded the ball to set up a 3rd and 3 from the Saints 10-yd. line with 14 seconds to play. Many thought that San Francisco would center the ball for an Akers field goal that would send the game to overtime. Harbaugh elected to run a play for the end zone to try to win the game in regulation. The play call was designed for Vernon Davis, who had obliterated Saints coverages all afternoon.
New Orleans had played mostly a single high safety mixed with blitzes and man coverage during the 49er drive and much of the game. Saints coaches switched it up on this play though, electing to play a Cover 2 with linebackers dropping into intermediate zones. Davis came off the left side of the 49er formation, running a quick post to the end zone. New Orleans linebacker Scott Shanle gave up his positioning to break towards 49er tight end Justin Peele on a shorter pattern, giving Smith the room to find Davis. The throw was perfect, and Davis gathered it in at the goal line in front of Saints safety Roman Harper. The Niner tight end held on to the ball despite a collision with Harper, falling into the end zone and giving San Francisco a thrilling 36-32 victory.
This was the first of three straight trips to the conference championship game for Harbaugh's 49ers, which included a win and a trip to Super Bowl XLVII (in New Orleans) following the 2012 season. A win in this game for New Orleans would have meant hosting the NFC title game in the Mercedes Benz Superdome against the New York Giants, who had upset the Packers during the divisional round. The Saints had pulverized the Giants during week twelve of the 2011 season 49-24, and would have certainly been favored to return to the Super Bowl. Instead, Saints fans had to watch the Giants upset the 49ers in the title game, then follow that up with a win over the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI. The bottom fell out for the entire New Orleans franchise after losing to the 49ers. Commissioner Roger Goodell initiated a witch hunt against the team in the 2012 offseason, which became known as "Bountygate". The ridiculous investigation that followed would result in numerous player suspensions, a handful of draft picks forfeited, and a yearlong suspension of Saints coach Sean Payton. The ludicrous punishments handed down from a faulty investigation sent New Orleans into a tailspin of mediocrity that lasted for most of the next five years. Not even that was as painful though, as a lost potential championship against a longtime nemesis by one of the most talented teams in New Orleans Saints history.