By Sam McPherson
The New Orleans Saints come to Levi’s Stadium for the first time on Sunday, and the San Francisco 49ers will be ready for them. The Saints are just 3-4, but they still have a shot at the NFC postseason in 2016. The 49ers are 1-6, however, and it would take a minor miracle for San Francisco to recover enough over the final nine games of the season in order to qualify for the playoffs. Even though both teams have played in the Super Bowl in the recent past, harder times have come for both organizations and fan bases.
For years, though, the two franchises played each other twice a season as members of the NFC West Division. Over 61 games from 1970-2000, as the teams played each other just once in the strike-shortened 1982 season, the Saints and the 49ers became frequent combatants. San Francisco won most of those games, posting a 43-17-2 record against New Orleans in those divisional matchups. Overall, the 49ers lead the all-time series, too, by a 47-25-2 margin. Here are the five most memorable games in the 50-season rivalry between the clubs, dating back to 1967.
1970: Saints 20, 49ers 20
This was the first meeting between the two teams as NFC West Division rivals. After splitting the first two games after the Saints’ arrival in the NFL as an expansion team in 1967, this initial meeting in the divisional rivalry was somewhat of a letdown for both teams. The 49ers would go on to finish 10-3-1, losing the NFC Championship Game at home to the Dallas Cowboys, while the Saints struggled to a 2-11-1 record. So just how did this tie manage to happen at Kezar Stadium?
San Francisco quarterback John Brodie would win the 1970 NFL MVP Award, but he was terrible in this game, throwing three interceptions and completing just 47.2 percent of his passing attempts. Overall, the 49ers committed four turnovers, and the defense, which would finish in the bottom half of the league rankings for points allowed, gave up the tying touchdown in the fourth quarter. Saints QB Billy Kilmer came on in relief to throw two TD passes in the final 15 minutes for New Orleans, enabling the tie game.
1987: Saints 26, 49ers 24
Both teams would go on to qualify for the postseason, but this year was notable because it was the first playoff appearance ever for the New Orleans franchise. This was one of just two losses in the regular season for San Francisco as well, and it was a landmark win for the Saints, who lost just three times in 1987. The 49ers outgained the Saints, 402-261, but New Orleans got four field goals from Morten Andersen and came up with the big play on special teams: a 61-yard return of a blocked field goal attempt.
San Francisco wide receiver Jerry Rice caught two TD passes, of course on his way to setting a single-season record at the time for TD catches, and three different 49ers players threw TD passes: Joe Montana, Harry Sydney and Steve Young. S.F. scored 10 points in the fourth quarter to wipe out a 23-14 deficit, but the Saints won the game on Andersen’s fourth FG of the day at windy Candlestick Park.
2010: Saints 25, 49ers 22
New Orleans was the defending Super Bowl champion in this matchup, and as for the 49ers, they were coming off a seventh-straight season without a postseason appearance. That playoff drought would reach eight seasons in 2010. In this game, the Saints took an early 9-0 lead thanks to a safety and a Drew Brees TD pass to Reggie Bush. The 49ers fought back to score two TDs and take a lead midway through the third quarter, and then Brees tossed another TD pass to give New Orleans the edge heading into the final 15 minutes of the game.
The 49ers defense that would be so stout in the subsequent years held the Saints to just 287 yards on the day, and all New Orleans could manage in the fourth quarter were three field goals. But it was enough, as the S.F. offense committed four turnovers on the day and could only score one TD in the fourth quarter itself. Alex Smith tossed two interceptions for the 49ers, while Frank Gore and Delanie Walker both fumbled away the ball. While the Saints would go on to lose in the wild-card round to the Seattle Seahawks, the 49ers would finish 6-10 and hire Jim Harbaugh in the offseason.
2011: 49ers 36, Saints 32
This was a playoff game at Candlestick Park, played in January 2012, and it was an instant classic. With 34 combined points scored in the fourth quarter, the matchup turned from a relative snoozer after three quarters into one of the most exciting games in NFL postseason history. With a 20-14 lead heading into that final quarter, San Francisco looked poised to win its first playoff game since 2002. But the Saints, just two seasons removed from their own Super Bowl championship, wouldn’t give up easily.
Four lead changes happened in the final five minutes of the game, as the teams traded TD blows. With 4:02 left, New Orleans scored on a 44-yard pass. With 2:11 left, San Francisco scored on a 28-yard run. With 1:37 left, the Saints retook the lead on a 66-yard TD pass. Finally, with just nine seconds left, Vernon Davis caught a TD pass from Smith to secure the crazy victory for the 49ers and the home crowd. Just Google “The Catch III” to see what we mean.
1980: 49ers 38, Saints 35 (OT)
The NFL legend of Joe Montana was born late in the 1980 season, and it reached full bloom in 1981 as the third-year QB led San Francisco to its first Super Bowl title. In this game, Montana led the 49ers to the greatest comeback in NFL history at the time, overcoming a 35-7 halftime deficit to win the game in overtime. Montana threw for two TDs and ran for another in the second half as the 49ers tied the game on a seven-yard Lenvil Elliott run and then won the game in OT on Ray Wersching’s 36-yard field goal.
The loss dropped New Orleans to 0-14 at the time, as the Saints were on the verge of becoming the first team in NFL history to go 0-16 in a season. They would beat the New York Jets the following week to avoid that fate, and the 49ers themselves would finish just 6-10 in 1980. But when the young Montana outdueled the veteran Archie Manning in this game, it was a sign of the coming times and a passing of the guard in the league: Montana would go on to win four Super Bowls in the decade, of course, to cement his place in the pantheon of NFL greats.