NEW ORLEANS - The better team won. That simple.
The 49ers beat the Saints physically in a 31-21 victory Sunday. Each team forced a pair of turnovers. The difference was that the Saints scored just seven points off of San Francisco turnovers while the 'Niners scored 14 points off of Saints turnovers on a pair of interception returns for scores.
It was the first that changed the game. With the Saints up 14-7 just before the half, Ahmad Brooks picked off Drew Brees and returned it 50 yards for a touchdown. From that point forward, the 49ers were the dominant team.
In the final analysis, the San Francisco defense was simply too good for the Saints offense, which really scored 14 points. The other seven came off of a fumbled punt.
Here are my first takes from the game:
**Saints go three-and-out on their first possession. On first down, Brees was under extreme pressure as soon as he rolled right. On second down, Aldon Smith drilled Mark Ingram for no gain. On third down, receivers were blanketed and Brees threw it away. After getting a three-and-out on defense, the Saints went there-and-out again on their second possession as New Orleans gained a total of nine yards on their first six plays.
**The first sign of an inexperienced quarterback making his first road start came with 8:45 to play in the first quarter when on 2nd-and-8 from their own 40-line, San Francisco had to call timeout as Colin Kaepernick looked a bit confused. Kaepernick had another problem early in the second quarter, taking a delay-of-game penalty with the crowd at a deafening pitch. Kaepernick got another delay of game penalty midway through the third quarter to help kill a possession.
**Jabari Greer got schooled by Mario Manningham on the next play. Manningham turned Greer inside out, got wide open in the right flat, caught the pass from Kaepernick and rambled 42 yards to set up the first score of the game. On the next play, Manningham beat Greer again for a 12-yard completion to make it first-and-goal before Kaepernick fooled everyone, faking a run right to Gore and keeping left to score untouched.
**On their third possession of the game, Bryce Harris went down for the Saints, a catastrophic occurrence. Harris is the third-team right tackle, playing for Zach Strief, who was inactive, and Charlie Brown, who is out. That left the Saints with newly signed William Robinson to play. Harris was carted off with a leg injury.
**Drew Brees extended his NFL record streak to 54 consecutive games with a touchdown pass when he connected with David Thomas on a six-yard scoring pass with 1:45 to play in the first quarter. Interestingly, the official on the spot originally ruled Thomas down at the one-yard line, despite the fact that Thomas rolled into the end zone untouched. Really? Fortunately, the official was corrected by his cohorts in stripes and a touchdown was ruled without wasting time with a red flag challenge. Also interesting is that the touchdown came out of an I-formation, one-receiver set with Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles both on the sideline.
**Kaepernick displayed outstanding mobility and elusiveness to elude a very stout Saints pass rush twice in the first quarter. He later rushed 15 yards for a for a first down on a third-down play to extend a drive. He can run.
**Darren Sproles correctly judged an Andy Lee punt. Sproles drifted back to his seven-yard line, acted like he would receive it and then peeled off to let the ball bounce into the end zone for a touchback. So many punt return men at every level do not execute the simple, often taught premise of standing at the 10-yard line and letting any ball that sails over your head go. To magnify this point, Sproles later fair caught a Lee punt at his own 11. He was standing at the 10. Just how you are taught.
**On the other side of the spectrum, Ted Ginn, Jr. muffed a punt, refusing to call for a fair catch with a man his face, fumbled, and Rafael Bush recovered at the San Francisco 11-yard line. The Saints immediately capitalized, with Brees hitting Marques Colston on a 10-yard touchdown pass to give the Saints a 14-7 lead. On the next punt by the Saints, Kyle Williams replaced Ginn as the return man and he called for a fair catch immediately on a punt by Morstead that was easily returnable. Williams later called for and made a fair catch at his own six-yard line. Just what you are taught not to do!
**Marques Colston took over the all-time lead in touchdowns in Saints history with 56, surpassing Deuce McAllister (55) when he caught the touchdown pass. Those are two class acts. Colston does it consistently well and quietly.
**Vernon Davis got a clean release, was wide open and dropped a perfect throw fro Kaepernick that would have been perhaps a 20-yard gain or longer midway through the second quarter.
**A holding penalty negated a big completion to Michael Crabtree. Anthony Davis was the guilty party as he held Turk McBride. Davis compounded the problem by throwing his arms up to say, "I didn't hold him." Dead give away. Sure flag to follow.
**The Saints had to punt back to the 49ers after failing to convert a third-and-one from their own 20-yard line as Mark Ingram was stopped for virtually no-gain. That was set in motion by the second down play, where Brees hit Graham on a four-yard completion. Graham ran a simple stop route. Problem was that he stopped a full yard short of the first-down marker. That is on Graham. You must run to the first-down yard-marker. The defensive player will not run through you at 6-foot-6.
**Graham was a non-factor, For that matter, Davis was a non-factor for the 49ers. Both teams did a good job of taking away the big-play tight end on each side. Graham had four catches for 33 yards, with two coming on the meaningless, garbage time final drive of the game. Davis did not have a catch.
**Kaepernick made a huge mistake, throwing into double coverage with Patrick Robinson intercepting it at the New Orleans 44-yard line with 38 seconds left in the half.
**Drew Brees returned the favor, making an awful read with Ahmad Brooks picking it off and returning it 50 yards for a touchdown, a gigantic turn-around in the game as it was tied 14-14 with 22 seconds left in the half. Just a bad read, nothing more. He was looking for Graham, who had attracted enormous attention.
**The Saints had the ball for 17:28 of the first half, a good way to help the defense, which, by the way, played well in the half.
**Kaepernick hit Delanie Walker on a 45-yard completion on the first possession of the second half. The Saints were blitzing on 3rd-and-2 from the San Francisco 28-yard line. They did not get there and Walker lost Curtis Lofton in coverage. The 49ers went on to drive 80 yards in just five plays with Kaepernick connecting with Frank Gore on a six-yard touchdown pass and it was 21-14 San Francisco with 12:17 to play in the third quarter. Very little resistance by the Saints defense on the drive. Kendall Hunter nearly scored one play before the touchdown on a 21-yard run.
**Brees suffered another pick-six when he threw high to Marques Colston, who was drilled by Dashon Goldson, taking his legs out from under him. Dante Whitner picked off the tipped ball and returned it 42 yards for a score. Even with a perfect throw, Goldson was going to blast Colston, making it unlikely that he would have caught it. Colston, who was shaken up, passed the concussion test and was able to return to the game.
**Brees then engineered a very important touchdown drive of 8 plays, 80 yards, capping it with a two-yard touchdown pass to Jed Collins. It was set up by a 43-yard completion from Brees to Lance Moore. The Saints were back in it at 28-21 with 7:19 to play in the third quarter.
**The officials made a truly horrible call of offensive pass interference on Joe Morgan on a deep pass attempt by Brees late in the third quarter. Two guys threw their flags. Replay showed it was a pathetic call. It should have been a no-call. If anything, it was an arm-bar on the defender.
**Isa Abdul-Quddus was injured early in the fourth quarter when he led with his helmet, colliding with Delanie Walker on a 24-yard completion from Kaepernick for a big first down with 12:49 to play in the game.
**Saints defensive backs missed too many tackles all game long but the defense played well enough to win. The streak of 400 yard plus games to start a season against the Saints defense came to an end.
**The officials erred badly again when Randy Moss obviously interfered with Malcolm Jenkins on a potential interception in the end zone. Too obvious to miss! A Randy Moss sighting. Remember him? He signed with the 49ers, rather than the Saints, in the offseason. No loss.
**The 49ers got the big, long, time-consuming scoring drive they needed when Kaepernick engineered a 16 play, 85-yard drive which culminated in a David Akers 27-yard field goal to make it 31-21 with 7:50 to play in the game. The drive took a valuable 9:25 off the clock, wearing down the Saints defense.
**Why were the Saints huddling, taking their time when they got the ball back down 10 points with 7:46 to play?
**It did not matter. The pass rush of the 49ers overwhelmed the Saints in the second half, sacking Brees frequently. San Francisco finished with five sacks.
**The Saints offense was simply inept, accounting for a paltry 290 total yards, including 58 on the final, meaningless drive.
As a result, the Saints no longer have room for error. To make the playoffs, they must go at least 6-1 the rest of the way. That will be very, very difficult against the schedule remaining. The good news is that the Saints will not face another defense as good as the 49ers.
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