With his former high school teammate quarterbacking the opposition and his former high school coach in the stands, RB Reggie Bush put on the best show of his young NFL career so far.
Three short runs, all using Bush's speed, instincts and toughness, and a fourth touchdown on a shovel pass from Brees were more than enough for the Saints, wearing their all-black unis, to smash a former NFC West rival and the league's other surprise success story.
The 5-7 49ers, playing better than anyone could have suspected, met a buzzsaw in New Orleans against the 8-4 Saints, who hit the 49ers with all sorts of new tricks.
The game started slow, with five straight three-and outs by the two teams. New Orleans converted the game's initial first down seven minutes into the game on an 18-yard downfield strike to WR Joe Horn, who made the catch on his knees after stumbling and aggravating the groin injury that has been haunting him for a month. The Saints still ended up punting, and the 49ers responded with a 13-play, 64 yard drive that resulted in a 29 yard field goal.
RB Frank Gore had 25 yards rushing on that drive. He would have 15 the rest of the day.
Michael Lewis brought the kickoff back to the Saint 48 by sprinting down the right sideline, and the Saints' $110 million backfield got to work. McAllister went for 17 and 3 yards while Bush took a pair of dump off passes for 11 and 14 yards. Bush took the second pass in, juked a 49er near the first down, then battered his way ten more yards in the middle of a moving mass of humanity to within inches of the goal line, an amazing show of determination and power from the 6'0, 200 pound runningback.
Bush dove over the top on first and goal, but jumped a little too soon. His outstretched hands lost control of the ball near the goal line, but a replay review confirmed that Bush had indeed scored. It was Bush's second career touchdown from scrimmage, but he was just getting started with his goal line dramatics.
The teams exchanged three more punts before the Saints got rolling again with 6:42 left in the second quarter at their own 43. Brees hit Jamal Jones for four and Devery Henderson for three yards on the drive, but McAllister and Bush took care of the rest. McAllister converted a 4th and 1 near midfield, and Bush took in receptions of 10 and 13 before he punched it in from eight yards out on a sweep, tiptoeing inside the left pylon for his second score and a 14-3 lead.
The Saints came out flat in the third quarter on their first offensive possession, and the Saints punted after Bush was dropped for a four yard loss on 3rd and 3. The 49ers came out on fire, and Smith hit passes of 14 and 7 yards and Gore rushed for eight to get the visitors to midfield. Then Smith rocked and fired a bomb to Antonio Bryant, who slipped by Fred Thomas and was lost by Josh Bullocks deep. Bryant caught the ball in stride and walked in from 48 yards out. Mike Nolan, son of the former Saints head coach Dick Nolan, went for a surprise onsides kick, which was caught easily by Michael Robinson to keep the 49ers' hot offense on the field.
The 49ers tried to hit the Saints again, but CB Mike McKenzie, who hadn't intercepted a pass since the 2005 season opener, made a the first of a pair of diving interceptions of Smith in the second half. Both picks triggered a huge swing of momentum back in the Saints' favor.
McKenzie got up and scrambled down the left sideline before Smith got half a hand on his ankle and dropped him at the 49er two yard line. A replay review confirmed that Smith had indeed tackled McKenzie, who lost control of the ball after hitting the ground. The Saints were unable to punch it in and instead settled for the first of two John Carney field goals and a 17-10 lead.
The Saints had taken back the emotion and momentum of the game for good. Smith was sacked by Charles Grant way back at his own 8 for a 13 yard loss, setting up another 49er punt. The 49ers had seemingly run out of punches in the third quarter, and the Saints jumped on their throat with their next drive. The 12 play, 67 yard drive demoralized the 49er defense for six and half minutes, featuring a 16 yard first down scramble on third and 8 by a nimble Drew Brees, an 18 yard power run by McAllister and a run by Bush for nine yards down to the 49er 10. The San Francisco defense seemed to come unraveled, committing a major facemask and a defensive holding penalties on back-to-back plays that gave the Saints first and goal at the 49er 2. McAllister lost two and Brees scrambled for a technical sack and a loss of one before Bush scored his third touchdown of the day on a nifty five-yard shovel pass up the middle from Brees.
The score was 24-10 going into the fourth quarter. The 49ers got the ball back and went deep. Smith hit Gore for four yards and rookie TE Vernon Davis for 21 before McKenzie struck again. Smith went deep for Bryant, who was matched one-on-one with McKenzie. At the last second, McKenzie dove in front of Bryant and gathered the ball in as he slid shoulder-first into the turf at the Saint 9.
The Saints snuffed out any possible hope for the 49ers with their next drive, that featured a mix of brilliant and puzzling from Reggie Bush. On 3rd and 11, the Saints tried the bubble screen with Reggie Bush. The blocking was excellent - something we haven't seen from a Saints team in a long time - and Bush sprung out of the crowd down the right sideline. Pulling away from the crowd, Bush appeared to be headed for a 92 yard touchdown reception when the ball, held in his right hand, squirted free. Bush gathered the hot potato in and tailed off his run out of the bounds at the San Francisco 18 yard line. Wincing in embarrassment, Bush was as incredulous as the rest of the stadium about the gaffe.
McAllister took a run and a dump-off pass down to the 10, setting up third and two. The play had been set up, however, in the 48+ minutes of game time before hand.
On Bush's fourth touchdown and other plays before, the rookie was lined up as the wideout to the strong side, set back off the line of scrimmage. Before the snap, he sprinted in motion, and took the handoff as Deuce McAllister took the fake up the gut of the defense. Earlier on the day, the Saints ran this play numerous times, faking instead to Bush and letting McAllister dive up the middle. When head coach and play caller Sean Payton saw that the 49ers ignored the backfield subterfuge on a previous play, he knew the end-around handoff for Bush was ripe.
McAllister's dive on third and short didn't bite as hard as hoped, however. A pair of 49er defenders in the front seven of their 3-4 attack read the action, even though the rest of the defense was late to react. Bush found himself immediately one-on-one with outside linebacker Hannibal Navies, but the rookie scooted through the arm tackle and raced outside. Jammal Brown had already caught weakside middle linebacker downfield and blocked him out of the play. WR Devery Henderson couldn't sustain his one-on-one block on CB Walt Harris, so Bush had to cut inside of Harris near the sideline. C Jeff Faine did a fantastic job and got to the perimeter, met safety Keith Lewis at the six yard line and blocked him into the end zone. Bush cut back outside off of Faine's block and made his goal line dive from the three yard line, where strongside middle linebacker dove for his feet. Safety Mark Roman smashed into Bush's ribs as he was horizontal at the pylon and drove Reggie's left shoulder into the sideline turf, the reason why he was slow to get up.
Bush extended his frame with both hands on the ball and appeared to lose control of the ball as Roman impacted, but a replay review upheld that the ball crossed the line before an airborne Bush lost control. Bush's fourth touchdown of the game ties the team record, also held by Joe Horn. The red review flag cost Mike Nolan's team their final challenge and their final timeout with 11:18 left in the game. Carney's extra point made the score 31-10.
The 49ers couldn't get anything going in response, and punted again. That's when Deuce McAllister took over. The Deuce got seven straight carries, bringing the Saints 44 yards down the field and taking almost five minutes off the clock. Bush and Karney got into the clock-chewing ground action before McAllister carried twice more down to the 49er 15 yard line. The drive ended with Carney's second field goal after it took 7:38 off the clock on 11 plays - all runs. Drew Brees didn't need to attempt a pass in the final 12 minutes of the game.
The 49ers came out throwing again, and caught a break on a 27-yard pass interference penalty on LB Scott Fujita, who was covering the rookie Davis. But on the next play, Smith's rainbow was intercepted by free safety Josh Bullocks, who waited patiently under the ball as 49ers tried to get back to Smith's off-target throw. Brees kneeled twice to ice the Saints' non-losing season and maintain their NFC South lead.
Brees finished 17/28 for 186 yards, tying his second-lowest completions number of the season and his third-lowest yardage total of the season. It's a deceiving and ironic stat, but the Saints are undefeated when Brees throws for under 349 yards on the season. In four losses, Brees has thrown for 349, 383, 398 and 510 yards. He was credited with only one sack, but that was a technicality as he scrambled out of bounds for a one-yard loss in the third quarter.
McAllister's 136 yards on the ground are his best of the season, his best since the season finale of the 2004 season. He had one catch for four yards, giving him 140 total on the day. Reggie Bush finished with ten carries for 37 yards and three touchdowns, but he added nine catches for 131 yards and another score, including the 74-yard catch and run. Saints wide receivers had only four catches on the day, two to Henderson and one each to Horn and Jamal Jones, while TE Mark Campbell had two catches for 10 yards. The Saints may get Horn and Colston back next week for a tough night game against Dallas.
The Saints held the 49ers to 10 first downs, 3/11 on third downs and 202 net yards, only 57 on the ground. The 49ers punted seven times, were penalized seven times and held the ball for less than 23 minutes.
DE Charles Grant, without linemate Will Smith (knee) today, had one of his best games. Grant's six solo tackles lead the team, and had one of the team's four sacks, two hurries and a pass batted down. MLB Mark Simoneau, DT Hollis Thomas and newly-activated DE Josh Cooper had sacks. Surprising Cooper was plucked off the practice squad before the game, and was credited with two tackles, five quarterback hurries and a pass defense. Weakside linebacker Scott Shanle had seven total tackles and a quarterback hurry.
For the second week in a row, the Saints dealt the playoff hopes of an NFC team a crushing blow. The 5-7 49ers continue to be a surprise contender in a rebuilding year but are probably out of wild card playoff spot contention.
The Falcons got back to .500 with a win in Washington, but still remain effectively three games behind New Orleans. The Carolina Panthers can stay within one game of the Saints by beating the Eagles on Monday night.