It was a big win in the Big Easy for the New Orleans Saints as they trump the defending NFC Champs with a last second field goal, 23-20. Sean Payton’s team only scored nine points in the second half (three Garrett Hartley field goals, all coming in the fourth quarter), so luckily for them they were able to shut down the 49ers on defense. I give the New Orleans “D” a lot of credit for holding the Niners to just 20 points. In this game, 17 of those 20 points came off of Saint turnovers. The two San Fran touchdown drives went for a combined 33 yards and one of those field goals followed a bizarre sequence that included a Corey White miscue (we’ll get to that later). So if you take away the three New Orleans turnovers, then this game could have been a blowout.
The 49ers had a lot of trouble running the ball in this one. Come late in the game, it seemed like they were trying to run the ball on every first down situation and getting no more than a couple of yards consistently, setting up 2nd and 3rd and longs (which are typically hard to convert). The Saints’ corners did a pretty good job covering the 49ers’ receivers in this game. Colin Kaepernick had a decent amount of time to throw the ball for a majority of the game and was simply unable to push the ball down the field. Anquan Boldin proved to be the biggest mismatch of the day as Keenan Lewis had trouble defending the back-shoulder throws, but then again who doesn’t? Back-shoulder throws seem to be the strength of Kaepernick and Boldin is a physical receiver on the perimeter who is generally much bigger than the corner trying to cover him. I would not be surprised if San Fran dialed up a few more of those pass plays in the near future. I would have liked to have seen them do it more in this game. Simply put, the Niners struggled to make big plays in this game. Their longest play on the afternoon was a 24 yard Frank Gore run. The longest pass play was a measly 17-yard touchdown toss to Vernon Davis. There was a situation, though, where San Fran missed a huge play in the passing game. It came when Kap was scrambling out to his left and Frank Gore was running a wheel route up the left sideline. It looked for all the world that the QB was going to keep it himself and run for a few yards. Seeing this, the defender peeled off of Gore and came up to make the tackle, thus abandoning Gore. Kap tried to float the ball out in front of his wide open running back, but he put a bit too much air under the throw and his intended receiver was unable to coral it. If that big play had hit, we may be talking about this contest ending quite a bit differently.
For the Saints, their offensive line did a pretty good job protecting Drew Brees. The one time they broke down massively (that I can remember) was late in the fourth quarter when the Niners were ahead 20-17 and New Orleans was driving for the game-tying field goal or go-ahead touchdown. It was on a third and two at the San Francisco 35 yard line (so right on the edge of field goal range). Brees took his seven-step drop and was immediately clobbered by Ahmad Brooks, who thoroughly beat right tackle Zach Strief around the edge. The ball was knocked loose and recovered by middle linebacker Patrick Willis. On a normal play, the ball would have gone back to the 49ers, however on this one the Saints were saved by a costly unnecessary roughness penalty. As it turns out, when Brooks hit Brees, he targeted the all-pro quarterback’s neck and head area in the process. This resulted in a 15 yard penalty and allowed the drive to continue. It eventually ended in a Garrett Hartley 42 yard field goal, which tied the game at 20 apiece. After this, the Saints’ defense forced a three-and-out and were then able to drive for the game winning field goal as time expired in the fourth quarter.
The reason why this game ended up being pretty close was because the 49ers were able to force turnovers and convert those botches into points whereas the Saints were not. Case in point, the funky play in the second quarter. It occurred when Colin Kaepernick tried to hit Mario Manningham in the left flat. New Orleans corner Corey White stepped in front of the ball and picked it off. He then returned the ball all the way down to the San Francisco 3 yard line, at which point he fumbled the ball into the end zone as he tied to dive for the touchdown. By rule, that is a touchback and the ball goes back to the 49ers, no harm, no foul. In a perfect world, the Saints would have converted that turnover for seven points and this game would not have been all that close. However, since the chance flew out the window, the Niners hung in the game and were able to use their defense to hold New Orleans to just 23 points at home. Unfortunately their offense was unable to do much for the majority of the game.
So now with this loss, the 49ers fall back to 6-4 and find themselves in a second place tie with the (suddenly hot) Arizona Cardinals. The Saints victory means that they can stay at least one step ahead of the (currently) 6-3 Carolina Panthers. These four teams will be dueling not just each other, but the rest of the NFC for a playoff spot. New Orleans is currently sitting in the driver’s seat in the NFC South, but the wild card spots are up for grabs. It will be interesting to see how the NFC playoff picture shakes out from this point forward because I think all four of these teams are worthy of a shot at the tournament; but not all four can make it in.