Gregg Williams' defense squandered two brilliant late comeback touchdowns by allowing TE Vernon Davis to run roughshod through their secondary, delivering a crushing, season-ending blow to the Saints' season.
It was hardly the defense's fault - the offense committed five turnovers and helped spot the 49ers a 17-0 lead in the second quarter. The defense played very well for most of the day - QB Alex Smith and RB Frank Gore had less than 200 yards of offense going into the fourth quarter. Williams' unit collected four sacks, recovered a fumble, and allowed only 4 of 15 third down conversions.
But in the Year of the Tight End, the Saints could never really cover TE Vernon Davis, who burned Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper with bookend touchdowns that opened and closed scoring. Ironic then that it was the Saints' superstar at the position that made one of the most incredible plays of the season. TE Jimmy Graham scored from 66 yards out, skying to catch a ball deep downfield in double coverage, evading a tackler then stiff-arming CB Carlos Rogers all the way into the end zone to give the Saints an apparent season-extending lead inside the two minute warning.
But that lead wouldn't last, as Smith made the biggest throws of his seemingly endless 49er career and hit Davis for a 14-yard score with nine seconds left. Davis caught the last of his seven catches and 180 yards with a 14-yard score on a perfectly thrown ball from Smith, who found Davis at the goal line behind LB Scott Shanle. Davis survived the tremendous hit from Harper and held on for the score, while Harper knelt dazed, having taken the worst of the hit.
The Saints defense forced three straight punts then recovered a Smith fumble to end the first half as the Saints cut the 49ers' lead to 17-14, then forced four Andy Lee punts in the first 18:23 of the second half. Unfortunately, Sproles fumbled Lee's first punt of the second half, handing the ball back to the 49ers at the Saint 26 and leading to a David Akers field goal.
On the first touchdown of the day, Davis beat Harper on a deep fade, then Jenkins arrived too late and at a bad angle, instead taking down Harper and allowing Davis a jog into the end zone from 49 yards out. To set up a 25-yard Alex Smith designed bootleg run for a late touchdown, Davis caught a deep fade running right past Jenkins, who was helpless in man coverage.
Reminiscent of Terrell Owens' emotional playoff touchdown grab, Davis was seen weeping opening as his teammates cheered him on the sidelines, while Smith made a Montana-like statement with his bootleg spring opposite a Gregg Williams overload blitz.
Despite 928 passing yards in two playoff games, Drew Brees is done thanks to unraveling mistakes by skill position players on offense and defense. The Saints' MVP candidate quarterback set multiple franchise postseason records with 63 passes, completing a 40 of them for 462 yards. But the sun probably disguised S Dashon Goldson on the Saints' second drive, who picked a errant deep pass, and Devery Henderson fell down and allowed an interception on another deep ball in the first half.
A devastating string of turnovers made the tight score at the end of the game all the more maddening. An early fumble by Pierre Thomas on the game's opening drive ended the Saints' scoring threat at the 49er 2 yard line and knocked Thomas out of the game. The hit by headhunting safety Donte Whitner clearly knocked Thomas senseless, and later a hit by Whitner sent Jimmy Graham to the locker room for treatment on a problematic preexisting back injury. Graham would return and caught five passes for 113 yards from Brees, who had put up 34 passes by halftime. He too bookended scoring for the Saints, getting the Saints on the board with a great catch in the second quarter despite a vicious hit.
After the 49ers returned Brees' first interception and the 41-yard return into a touchdown, Courtney Roby muffed, recovered, then fumbled the kickoff return, handing the 49ers another short field and a field goal. Sproles would fumble and kill the Saints' first drive of the second half.
Sproles atoned for his mistakes with 4:11 left in the game, using the Saints' reliable standard - the inside slant out of the backfield and taking advantage of a great downfield block by Graham to zip 44 yards down the middle of the field for a touchdown. That score gave the Saints' their first lead of a game that had turned into a defensive struggle. Little did anyone know that the final four minutes of this game would produce four touchdowns and 254 yards of total offense.
Free agent-to-be Marques Colston led the Saints with nine catches for 136 yards and scored after catching a gorgeous pass from Brees and tip-toeing across the front right corner of the end zone in the second quarter.
In a game without any sense of offensive balance for the Saints, they rushed the ball just 14 times for 37 yards after losing Pierre Thomas. Chris Ivory collected 23 yards on nine carries, and would himself have lost a fumble had the whistle not blown aggressively, his forward progress judged to have been stopped.
The refs called a loose game, not flagging the Saints once with an accepted penalty and throwing only five flags on the 49ers. Two of those flags were for offensive pass interference in the third quarter when the 49ers ran back-to-back pick plays downfield. Both of Smith's passes were incomplete on long distance-to-go downs, so the Saints declined the penalties, but clearly the 49ers were trying to get away with some pick-and-rolls with paired receiver routes.
Even this officiating crew would have none of that, though they allowed DE Justin Smith to horse collar Drew Brees on a sack late in the game. Perhaps the refs didn't throw the flag because Smith reached out over the top of bullied LT Jermon Bushrod to drag Brees down.
The Saints are out of the playoffs and end a 2011 season with their first loss since late October. Like last year, their season ends after a stunningly defensive meltdown on the West Coast, each time with veteran safety Roman Harper as a touchdown-surrendering goat. Harper, who led the defense in sacks this season and collected an early sack on Smith, was joined in this game by fellow starting safety Malcolm Jenkins. Both players gave up huge plays in the pressure-oriented Saints defense.