NEW ORLEANS – The team that brought you The Catch has been revived by The Heave and The Flop.
The San Francisco 49ers scratched out of their own private hell and landed squarely in a midseason purgatory Sunday, relying on Colin Kaepernick's freelancing and Perrish Cox's freefalling to save a game and a season they all but threw away.
Jim Harbaugh, who was so exasperated at an apparent Hail Mary touchdown to the New Orleans Saints' Jimmy Graham at the end of regulation that he tossed his papers in disgust, was suddenly leaping on top of special teams coach Brad Seely in the dark passageway to the locker room. "Great job!" he screamed before wiping away a grin. "Great job."
Great job? Yes, but that's the funny thing about Sunday's victory. The Niners still have the same problems they had before: Kaepernick locks in on his targets and doesn't make the best reads, and the secondary is vulnerable to big plays. Those two things nearly doomed San Francisco when it mattered most, and yet those two things bailed Harbaugh's team out.
Fast-forward through the Niners letting a 14-0 first-half lead devolve into a 24-21 fourth-quarter deficit, and hit play at Kaepernick needing a season-saving drive to tie the game and send it to overtime. He fired incompletions from his own 22-yard line on his first three downs, and then it was 10 yards or a cloud of dust for the season. He did not end up following the play that was called.
"I saw Kaep roll out and cut somebody," said 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver, who watched from the sideline. "I was screaming and yelling like everybody else."
His pass sailed 51 yards and into the waiting hands of Michael Crabtree, who was so open it looked like he ran out onto the field from the sideline. Harbaugh, like the Saints, didn't see Crabtree.
"That wasn't the intent of the play," he said dryly. "Colin does a great job of that. I'm glad he did it that way."
Kaepernick was just as relieved.
"I wasn't expecting it," he said, "but I'm glad it ended up that way."
After making zero progressions on the first three downs, he made at least three on the most important down. That's the boom or bust of No. 7.
The pass set up the game-tying field goal, and then Drew Brees had a shot to win it. With less than 10 seconds left, he aired it out and Graham hauled it in. Cue Harbaugh paper toss.
But there was a flag on the play. Perrish Cox, depending on your fanhood and your understanding of physics, either flopped like Balotelli or was coldly shoved to the ground by Graham. The referees ruled on the latter, and the Niners season was once again saved.
The game went to overtime, Ahmad Brooks forced Brees to fumble deep in his own territory and Phil Dawson kicked the winner. Cue Harbaugh leaping onto his assistant.
The 49ers' locker room was hardly jubilant. Some smiles, sure, but there was a realization they need to tiptoe past trouble every week now. Kapernick's only grin was when he admitted, "I'm happy I found someone who was open." Antoine Bethea said if the Graham catch wasn't overturned, "I would have been sick all week." Vernon Davis, who had but one catch for eight yards, said Kaepernick was "the hero of the game." But when asked about the energy from this win compared to others this season, he simply said, "It's different."
It's easy to look to a road win like this as a season-turning event, but it's simply a season-prolonging event. This game means only the next game will mean something.
This is somewhat familiar, in a good way. Last season San Francisco flirted with oblivion as well, having to play road playoff games in Green Bay, Carolina and Seattle. They thrived on it, and nearly went back to the Super Bowl. They are talented enough and physical enough to push any game to the end, and then win them with something quirky. That's to their credit.
"Anything can happen," Harbaugh said. "Anything happens every week."
The problem, though, is when "anything" happens to them instead of for them. Kaepernick is dynamic, but is he dynamic enough to save his team like that again and again? The secondary is talented, but a Marques Colston drop of a Brees long ball late in the first half saved that unit from being goats on Sunday.
Frank Gore, who steadied the ship leading into Sunday's game with his playoffs guarantee, hit the right tone after the Sunday win: "As long as we can establish the running game and stay on the field, we'll be fine." Gore and Carlos Hyde were the real engines for this crucial win, with 117 yards and two touchdowns between them. They are the keys to keeping the Niners alive, and San Francisco's true progress from two straight losses was in giving them the ball.
The more the Niners rely on Gore and Hyde, the less they will need Heave and Flop.