It was Drew Brees' first multiple interception game since week two, and he was haunted by the pass rush late in the game, but the beleaguered right tackle position was hardly to blame. The sacks came from all corners of the offensive line, including the spot where William Robinson - signed this week - had to step in when third stringer Bryce Harris left the game with a serious leg injury. The difference in the game, however, would be two huge, unpressured mistakes by Brees with the pick-six touchdowns on either side of halftime.
The 49ers took an early lead with big plays from QB Colin Kaepernick, making his first road start in the NFL. The four play, 62-yard drive was capped by Kaepernick, who kept left and followed blockers into the end zone from seven yards out.
Brees responded with a 79-yard, 11-play drive that featured good balance, with five runs by Mark Ingram and Pierre Thomas pacing 66 yards passing from Brees, including a 33-yard strike to a diving Joe Morgan, who made an incredible catch. Brees finished that drive with a 2nd and 6 pass to TE David Thomas, who dove across the goal line untouched.
The Saints defense got help from a holding penalty and a delay of game penalty to kill the 49ers' next drive, then got some more help from San Francisco punt return Ted Ginn, Jr. to extend their next drive. A 10-play drive was ended by a 20-yard intentional grounding penalty called against Brees on 3rd and 10. A free blitz up the middle forced Brees backwards, and his pass didn't get back to the line of scrimmage. Despite working with a fourth string right tackle for most of the game, Brees had plenty of time to throw in the first half. That would change in the second half.
But Ginn muffed Thomas Morstead's 47-yard boomer at the 49er 11 yard line, with gunner Courtney Roby bearing down on him. S Raphael Bush was on the spot to jump on the loose ball, which was all but forced by Roby and Ginn's unwise decision not to call for a fair catch. Two plays later, Brees put the Saints out in front with a beautiful down-the-seam pass to leaping Colston, who hauled in Brees' 10-yard touchdown pass at the back of the end zone. That score gave the pair 56 career touchdowns, the best active combination in the league right now.
Kaepernick gashed the Saints for huge chunks of yardage, including a 40-yard pass to Mario Manningham on his first touchdown drive and a 45-yard pass to TE Delaney Walker on the opening drive of the second half. Both of those huge gainers led to touchdowns. But he wasn't immune to the affects of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, drawing a delay of game penalty in the second quarter. Former Saint C Jonathan Goodwin did not have a great first half, drawing a holding penalty to wipe out a first down pass in the first quarter, then sending some shotgun snaps at Kaepernick's ankles. Late in the second quarter, Kaepernick had to double-clutch to pick up a low snap at his ankles, throwing off his read and leading to an errant pass that was picked off by Saints CB Patrick Robinson.
Taking over at his own 44 with :38 left in the half after Robinson's interception, Drew Brees returned the favor. After a spectacular catch by Devery Henderson was ruled incomplete when Henderson's second foot was out of bounds, Brees made a rare bad read and threw a pass over the middle to 49ers LB Ahmad Brooks, intended for Jimmy Graham. Brooks raced untouched for a touchdown that evened the game at 14-14 just before halftime.
The 49ers jumped back in the lead with an easy six-play, 80-yard touchdown drive fueled by a 45-yard catch and run down the sidelines by Walker, eerily similar to Vernon Davis' long gains in the Saints' divisional playoff loss. Frank Gore turned up field on a dump off for the final six yards.
On the first drive of the second half, DE Justin Smith overpowered LG Ben Grubbs and sacked Brees, who fumbled the ball for a six yard loss. On the next snap disaster struck, potentially a season-impacting play with 11:42 left in the third quarter. Brees' pass for Colston down the seam was off Colston's fingertips, popped up and intercepted by S Donte Whitner, who returned the pass 42 yards for a touchdown.
Colston, who had climbed the ladder high to attempt the catch, was flipped by S Dashon Goldson and landed on the back of his neck. Colston was able to walk to the locker room during the extra point.
In game time, the 49ers scored three touchdowns in 4:01, flipping the Saints' 14-7 lead into a 28-14 deficit.
Brees, undaunted, came out firing on the next drive and responded with an outlet touchdown pass to FB Jed Collins, who drove for the right front pylon. That drive was executed without Colston, the Saints' offensive MVP of the first half of the season, and triggered by a spectacular catch by WR Lance Moore for 43 yards, catching the pass despite a defensive pass interference on CB Tarrell Brown. Aided later by a defensive holding call on CB Chris Culliver, the Saints punched it from two yards out.
In the middle of the third quarter, Brees had three touchdown passes to Saints but two to 49er defenders, trying to outgun both the 49ers and his own mistakes, and the Saints were down 28-21.
The Superdome crowd was so loud, another delay of game penalty on the 49ers in the third quarter went unheard by players, who played for five seconds before refs' whistles were finally close enough to be heard. The Saints defense stopped the 49ers defense with the help of another holding penalty, this one on G Leonard Davis, and the false start, eventually forcing a 3rd and 19 that the Saints stopped short.
Marques Colston, as quiet as he is tough, returned to the game after passing a concussion test and exams on his neck.
Brees got the Saints moving again, finding wide open Sproles at the sideline on 3rd and 4. Two plays later, a deep pass for WR Joe Morgan was nearly intercepted by CB Carlos Rogers, then bounced off the hands of Whitner. But Morgan was flagged for offensive pass interference for pulling Rogers' left arm to prevent the interception near the goal line. Morgan also appeared to be shaken up on the play, when Brees probably had too much faith in his arm throwing deep into double coverage.
Two plays later, Brees faced 3rd and 20 from his own 47 and was sacked by LB Aldon Smith, the league leader in sacks, who beat RT William Robinson around the edge. TE Jimmy Graham gave Smith an ineffective chip off the snap, and Robinson was on his knees to give Smith a shove, but otherwise the quick pass rush was onto Brees unhindered.
On the 49ers' next drive, both RB Kendall Hunter and WR Kyle Williams went down with apparently significant injuries on a short run by Hunter. On that play, LB Jonathan Vilma decked and trampled Williams trying to block, then got behind Hunter to drag him down in traffic. A great play by the veteran Vilma was followed by his whiffed tackle on WR Mario Manningham in the open field. Both were driven to the locker room on the same cart.
CB Johnny Patrick, forced into the nickel back role because of injuries to Corey White and Elbert Mack, bit and whiffed on a tackle on WR Michael Crabtree to help the 49ers convert 3rd and 2 on the first play of the fourth quarter. Two plays later, Kaepernick faced 3rd and 10 at his own 35, which he converted with a strike down the seam to TE Delaney Walker. Saints S Isa Abdul-Quddus made a high-velocity hit with a lowered helmet into Walker's right hip, and was immediately surrounded by trainers. Just another injury in a vicious game so far, Abdul-Quddus was up soon but obviously took the worst of that impact.
Kaepernick picked up 3rd and 3 to keep this drive alive with an easy bootleg right dumpoff to fullback Bruce Miller, keeping the clock ticking and pivotal drive alive. RB Frank Gore gashed the defense for a 14-yard rush to the left as the Saints defense appeared to be buckling. The drive started at the 49er six yard line and reached the Saint 10 after 12 plays. A false start moved the 49rs back, but a 10-yard rush by Gore moved the 49ers to the Saint 5.
That's when the Saints' defense stiffened. They dropped Gore for a four-yard loss on his next drive, then Jenkins all but intercepted a fade pattern to Moss in the end zone. Moss craftily snuck an arm under Jenkins' right armpit and ripped him away from the ball. Jenkins and the Saints' defense were incredulous that a ref, just steps away, had not flagged Moss for blatant offensive pass interference. Perhaps had Jenkins fallen to the ground, Moss' crime would have been visible to the refs, who perhaps couldn't have seen Moss' arm around Jenkins' torso.
The Saints defense had stopped the 49ers in the red zone and forced a 27-yard field goal, but the damage was done. The 49ers' 85-yard drive had taken almost nine and a half minutes of clock, and all but iced the Saints' offense. With the delay between quarters, the Saints' offense sat on the sidelines for more than 24 minutes of real time. It would turn out to be the game-winning drive for the 49ers, not because of the three points but because of the amount of time taken off the clock. Up 31-21 and with the Saints' offense on ice, the game was essentially over.
Two plays into the Saints' drive, Brees had been sacked and then thrown an apparent completion to Devery Henderson, ruled incomplete. Another delay as Vitt challenged a five-yard catch by Henderson, and a cold Brees faced 3rd and 13. With defenders in his face, Brees sent up a back-footed prayed over the middle to Lance Moore in double coverage. The refs bailed Brees out of that one, calling the CB Chris Culliver for defensive holding, a five yard penalty and an automatic first down.
On the next play, a slant inside was caught for 11 yards by Lance Moore and then blasted backwards by Goldson. Moore appeared to lose the ball as he hit the ground, which was pounced on by the 49ers. Officials took a while to decide, but ruled that Moore was down by contact. 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh challenged as Moore jogged to the locker rooms after the heavy hit, one of many players to face concussion tests.
The refs upheld their ruling that Moore had not fumbled, and the Saints had a first down at their own 37. The Saints offense had run four plays in just over 30 minutes of real time, down 10 points with 6:35 left. But affected by so much time and two replay reviews, the Saints offense had no rhythm. Brees threw away a blown-up screen play, hit Colston for a short gain and was sacked on third down.
That forced 4th and 11 with 5:20 left on the clock, down by 10 at their own 36. Brees' lofted pass to Joe Morgan down the left sideline fell incomplete. CB Tarrell Brown all but tackled Morgan before the ball arrived then knocked it away, but no flag was thrown by the field judge.
It is difficult to say objectively - but there were many blatant missed flags by the refs in favor of the 49ers in the fourth quarter - on a day when San Francisco was still hammered with 10 penalties for 68 yards.
On 3rd and 6, pressured by RDE Cam Jordan on the naked bootleg, Kaepernick delayed all the way to the sideline as the Saints' coverage held up. He finally threw the ball away, forcing a 50-yard field goal attempt. David Akers' attempt was wide left, giving the ball back to the Saints at 4:42 at their own 40. The victory was small and short-lived for the home team Saints - they were still down by two scores and the offense was stone cold.
The offensive line allowed a fifth sack on first down, with LT Jermon Bushrod beat badly by LB Ahmad Brooks. Two short passes to Darren Sproles in the right flat brought up 4th and 4 with 4:04 left in the game. Brees fired too deep for Lance Moore down the seam. More contact before the ball arrived by CB Carlos Rogers, no flag.
Gore ripped off a rush for 11 yards and the Saints burned their last timeout with 3:49 left. Hard running by Gore and a facemask penalty on MLB Curtis Lofton moved the 49ers to the Saint 10. Gore busted through an exhausted defense for an apparent touchdown that was called back for holding on G Mike Iupati, who nearly beheaded Lofton. The Saints held on 3rd and 19, and FS Malcolm Jenkins blocked Akers' field goal, another small but meaningless victory for the defense. The ball bounded out of bounds at the Saint 22.
Brodrick Bunkley kicked 49ers OL Alex Boone in the back of the helmet after the play and was ejected from the game with a personal foul that pushed the Saints back to inside their own 11. Brees came back on the field, faced 4th and 2 and picked it up with a short pass to Jimmy Graham. Sproles broke away from two defenders at the sideline and raced up field for a 35-yard gain, stepping out of bounds at the 49er 37 with four seconds left. Brees knelt away the final four seconds.
Brees finished 26/41 for 267 yards and three scores, but it was two interceptions that were returned for scores that decided the game. The Saints picked up 19 yards of offense in 12 plays during the first two drives of the fourth quarter before the game was essentially over. The 49ers picked up five second half sacks as their blitzing schemes obviously adjusted at halftime to get the better of the Saints' pass protection.
The Saints offense converted all three of their red zone possessions into touchdowns, while the defense stopped two late deep 49er drives, forcing two field goal attempts, one missed, one blocked. It was actually a decent performance by the Saints' defense, relatively speaking, to limit the 49ers to 375 yards of offense, though the 49ers pulled back on the reigns after their long game-choking drive that resulted in a field goal to make the game 31-21.
Darren Sproles led the Saints with seven catches for 65 yards during his healthy return from a fractured, surgically-repaired hand. Both Marques Colston and Lance Moore survived devastating impacts on the day, and combined for seven catches for 97 yards and a score. The Saints stubbornly tried to maintain a run game balance through three quarters, but found little to gain against the 49ers. Chris Ivory picked up 34 yards on 8 carries, and Mark Ingram gained 27 yards on 10 carries. Pierre Thomas got one carry for no gain.
Kaepernick completed 16/25 passes for 231 passes, a score and an early interception, plus six carries for 27 yards and a score. Frank Gore picked up 83 yards on 19 carries as the 49ers ran the ball on 10 of their last 11 plays, bleeding the clock and keeping Brees in cold storage on the sideline.