The 49ers prevail on the road 31-21 to run their unbeaten streak to five games and their overall record to 8-2-1. They're now up 2.5 games in the NFC West, thanks to Seattle's loss at Miami, and it will hard to cough up that lead with five games to play.
Colin Kaepernick was good, not great in his second start, and while he and Jim Harbaugh will draw most of the headlines from this game, the story was how dominant the pass rush was in the second half and how thoroughly they throttled the Saints front and took them out of anything they were trying to do offensively.
The Niners got big games from some unlikely people such as Delanie Walker and Bruce Miller, while their big names were mostly dormant. It didn't matter, their offense just had too much depth, and too much play-making ability from Kaepernick, to be contained.
Drew Brees had three touchdown passes for the Saints, but also two for the Niners, with both Ahmad Brooks and Donte Whitner snatching pick sixes against him in a four minute span overlapping the second and third quarters to turn the game around.
The loss drops the Saints to 5-6, but their playoff chances haven't been officially killed off just yet since all the wild card hopefuls ahead of them (Dallas, Tampa Bay, Seattle and Minnesota) also lost games this week.
A quarterback switch in the Kaeper-nick of time? Hardly.
Fourth Quarter/Final Grade: B+
Colin Kaepernick finished the day 16-of-25 for 231 yards, with one touchdown pass on a rollout to Frank Gore, another touchdown run on a keeper, and only one real mistake, an interception thrown into double coverage near the end of the first half.
Kaepernick was fortunate to get away with one other error, with Randy Moss all but manhandling the corner to prevent an interception in the end zone in the third quarter, but otherwise he was quite good.
The two areas where Kaepernick really shined in the game was in scrambling away from sacks and keeping plays alive to find guys downfield and in not trying to force the ball to his name targets.
Maybe a young guy would feel pressure to keep his main guys happy and throw them some balls when they're not open, but Kaepernick wisely took what was available and instead made stars out of Delanie Walker and Bruce Miller.
Kaepernick wasn't consistent the whole game (who could be?), but he did far more right than not and he deserves a lot of credit for keeping calm and playing with poise in a tough road environment. He shrugged off his interception and had a fabulous drive to open the third quarter, giving the team a lead it would never relinquish, and engineered a 16-play, 9:45 drive overlapping the third and fourth quarters to put the Niners up ten and end the drama.
The only negative, outside of the interception, with Kaepernick is that his inexperience led to a couple of delay-of-game penalties and the length of time he held on to the ball on some scrambles led to a couple of holding calls. Still, they were plays that Alex Smith quite likely would've been sacked on, so it's better to take a negative play and not have a loss of down or your quarterback hit rather than a play where all three bad things happen on sacks (and possibly fumbles too).
Huh, he doesn't look Chinese.
Frank Gore: A-
The running attack never delivered the knockout punch, but they were effective in drips and drabs, with almost Chinese water torture consistency, and grounded out 144 yards on 31 carries, with bell-cow Frank Gore grinding out 83 yards on 19 carries to lead the way.
Gore took what was available but also churned out a lot of yards on his own, taking a couple of shots and delivering a couple too. His work on blitz pickup was commendable and he had a crushing downfield block on a 40-yard gain by Mario Manningham early in the game.
Gore also picked up his first receiving touchdown since the 2010 season, catching a 6-yard rollout pass in the third quarter from Colin Kaepernick and rolling into the end zone. He had another touchdown (a run) late in the game called back by a holding penalty.
Kendall Hunter: B
Had one 21-yard scamper in the third quarter to set up a touchdown but was otherwise quiet. Not playing as much these days because the coaches want to pair the inexperienced Kaepernick with the veteran Gore.
Hunter got hurt late in the game and it's unknown at this time how serious it is or what his availability will be for the Rams game next week.
Bruce Miller: A
At long last Miller was involved in the offense, catching three passes, including a season-long 26-yard gain, as an outlet valve for Kaepernick under duress. The 49ers played a lot more in their base personnel than usual (they wanted to keep Drew Brees on the sidelines), and Miller saw plenty of snaps.
Miller also had his customary day as a lead blocker, opening cracks for Gore to plunge through and guiding a path for Kaepernick's score in the first quarter.
Brandon Jacobs: Inc.
The former Giant was surprisingly active for the game and it looked for a while, in a cruel twist, that he still wouldn't be on the board statistically after his first carry of the season was called back due to penalty. He got another late though, so officially Jacobs has one carry for one yard as a 49er.
Anthony Dixon: Inc.
His number was called for a random third quarter toss play and he gained five yards.
A mixed-bag for Crabtree and just a plain weird outing for him overall.
He had one drop, another big play called back because of a penalty, and a 6-yard reception in the second half where he was ruled down prematurely by the refs and could've kept on running for awhile.
He also had one nice leaping grab on the sidelines and a couple of third down conversions. The touchdown streak of three games (four total scores) has come to an end, I'm afraid, but his favorite opponents, the Rams, loom on the schedule next week.
Mario Manningham: B+
Sometimes the forgotten man in the offense behind all the other big-name stars and assorted quotables, Manningham ignited the offense early with three first quarter receptions for 56 yards, including a 40-yard catch-and-run down the right sideline, and finished with five receptions on five targets for 69 yards.
Manningham has been for San Francisco what he was for the Giants, a useful role player who comes up big in unexpected moments but disappears for long stretches as well. Now that he's out of the New York spotlight, he's really been out of the media glare.
Randy Moss: C-
Didn't play much and neither of his biggest plays were receptions. He had a great seal block on Kaepernick's touchdown run and did everything but assault a Saints corner to prevent an interception on the only pass Kaepernick threw to him. Amazingly, no flag was called on the play.
Kyle Williams: Inc.
Was only targeted once and picked up what looks like a serious knee injury late in the game, on the same play where Hunter got hurt. It's a shame, because Williams looked all set to reclaim the returner job from Ted Ginn.
So Walker can hang on to Kaepernick's passes but not Smith's? It's a conspiracy!
Vernon Davis: C-
After one game back in the sun (well, it was a night game, but still) against the Bears, Davis crashed back down to Earth against a Saints defense determined to not experience a repeat performance against Davis, who torched them for seven receptions for 180 yards and two touchdowns in the playoffs.
Davis was targeted just once, officially, and he had a flat drop on a Kaepernick bullet that bounced off his chest pads. He caught one ball in the game, but it didn't count because of a penalty.
Davis blocked alright in the game, but for the most part he was just getting a workout out there.
Delanie Walker: A
Since the first time since Barack Obama was elected president (the first time), Walker went a whole game without a drop, snaring all three passes thrown to him, including one late in the game where he held on despite taking a big lick from the safety.
Walker had a 46-yard gain on a crossing route to set up a third quarter touchdown and had three grabs for 81 yards overall.
The only time Kaepernick got touched all game.
Joe Staley: A
It's hard for a left tackle to play a much better game than Staley. He didn't allow a sack, gave up hardly any pressures, had huge blocks on a Colin Kaepernick touchdown and a Frank Gore would-be touchdown and wasn't called for any penalties.
Mike Iupati: B+
A solid, if not dominating, game blocking up the gut, but he was called for a hold to take away the aforementioned Gore touchdown in the fourth quarter. The game was decided by then anyway.
Jonathan Goodwin: B
Had one bad shotgun snap on a play that ruined Kaepernick's timing and led to an interception. A holding penalty took away a reception from Michael Crabtree. Gave up some pressure up the gut, but had some nice blocks in the run game and was a lot better in the second half.
Alex Boone: B
A clean game from Boone, but not a dominant one. Most of Gore's runs were behind Iupati.
Anthony Davis: B-
Got called for a hold that took away Vernon Davis' only reception of the game and gave up a couple other pressures, but overall a pretty solid outing considering the venue.
Leonard Davis: C-
Played some in jumbo packages and was also called for a hold.
Any Cowboy enjoys the opportunity to catch a Brees on a hot day.
Justin Smith: B+
After being shutout in the sack column for the first nine games of the season, Smith has two in the past two games, collecting 1.5 against the Saints on Sunday. Smith has always gotten his sacks in bunches and he's heating up at the right time of year.
Did his usual outstanding job against the run game despite having to play without a nose tackle alongside him virtually the whole game.
Isaac Sopoaga: B+
Chased Brees out of the pocket on the first play from scrimmage and had a pair of stops early in the game. Hardly played after the first quarter because the Saints stopped trying to run the ball.
Ray McDonald: C
A pair of stops, but a pretty quiet game for McDonald, who had to play inside more than he prefers due to being in the nickel all game long.
Ricky Jean Francois: C+
The future starter was in on a pair of stops late in garbage time.
The forgotten 49ers linebacker was the star of the show.
Patrick Willis: A-
Had a team-high 10 tackles, blitzed quite a bit more than usual, combined with Ahmad Brooks for a sack and was great in coverage when called upon to do that. Willis was undeniably someone who opponents picked on last season, but he's improved immensely in that area this season while the rest of his teammates are garnering the headlines.
NaVorro Bowman: C
For maybe the first time in two seasons, Bowman had the quietest game of any 49ers linebacker, with just six tackles and no big plays. He was beaten for a touchdown pass by fullback Jed Collins. He did get close on one blitz, but overall Bowman wasn't a factor.
Aldon Smith: A-
1.5 more sacks for Smith, giving him a league-leading 16.5 for the season, just six behind ex-Giant Michael Strahan's single-season record of 22.5. With five games to go, it's well within Smith's considerable reach.
Smith now has 30.5 sacks in his career, surpassing a pair of Hall-of-Famers in Derrick Thomas and Reggie White for the best beginning of a pass-rushing career, and he still has those five games to really put some distance between himself and those legends.
The challenge for Smith has been to become an all-around linebacker, and in that regard he had a nice open-field tackle/body-slam of Darren Sproles in the first half.
Ahmad Brooks: A+
Playing the finest overall game of his career, Brooks recorded 1.5 sacks, was terrific in sealing the edge in the run game and scored the first touchdown of his career, intercepting Drew Brees late in the second quarter and returning it 50 yards to paydirt.
Brooks was in the short zone, covering underneath on Jimmy Graham, and Brees just didn't expect him to be there. Not only does Brooks rush the passer like 95 percent of the time, but he almost always lines up on the left side of the field. He was on the right side on his interception.
For once Whitner was on the right side of the highlight reel, unlike this play against the Rams.
Carlos Rogers: A-
A great all-around game for Rogers, who was physical and unrelenting in coverage and didn't allow anything against the Saints, regardless of whether he was lined up against huge Marques Colston or the smaller and quicker Lance Moore.
Rogers likely would've had his first interception of the season, but was interfered by Joe Morgan on the play to break it up.
Tarell Brown: C
Got called for a penalty and was beaten by Morgan and others on a handful of completions. Devery Henderson almost had a huge reception over him, but couldn't keep his second foot in bounds. If he does, it could've been a 17-7 game at half instead of 14-14.
Chris Culliver: B
Didn't give up anything of consequence, but also got called for two holding penalties. A better game than the last two weeks for Culliver, but not up to the standard of his first two months.
Donte Whitner: A-
The whipping boy of the defense most of the season, Whitner was able to shine on Sunday with a fortuitous pick six, the second of the game for the defense, that made the score 28-14 and gave the 49ers some breathing room.
Whitner also had a couple of huge open field tackles early in the game to send the Saints' punting team onto the field and nearly forced a late fumble with a big hit on Lance Moore, but it was ruled (incorrectly) that Moore was down by contact.
Led the secondary with eight stops, but did allow an early touchdown to Saints backup tight end Dave Thomas.
Dashon Goldson: B+
Also allowed one score, to Colston after the Saints got the ball at the 10-yard-line on Ted Ginn's muff fumble, but got retribution by submarine-ing Colston on a high pass from Brees, leading to a deflection that fell into Whitner's waiting arms for an interception return.
Goldson, like Whitner, threw his body around recklessly and the 49ers safeties hit harder as a tandem than any pair in the league.
And you thought Alex Smith had a rough day.
David Akers: D-
The veteran continues to struggle, and it has to be in his head now.
Akers was 1-of-3 on field goals, with his only conversion coming from 27 yards, practically PAT range. He was way wide left on a 50-yard attempt in the fourth quarter and had another attempt blocked, the second time he's been blocked this season.
To make matters worse, only one of Akers' six kickoffs was downed for a touchback, which is a pretty terrible percentage in a dome.
Andy Lee: B+
Had a long punt of 59 yards and averaged a decent 41.0 net on four efforts, with two of his punts planted on the Saints' 10-yard-line. Only one was returned, for three yards.
Brian Jennings: B-
Incident free on the snaps, but there had to have been a breakdown somewhere on the block and it's his responsibility to keep those guys organized.
Ted Ginn: D
Had a pointless muff on a punt he should've fair-caught and it led to a Saints touchdown that gave them a brief 14-7 lead. Picked up 13 yards on his other return and didn't have any kickoff return chances. Will likely hold on to his starting job due to injury.
Kyle Williams: C-
Took over late in the second quarter after Ginn was benched and fair caught two punts (one at his own 5-yard-line) and returned a kickoff 23 yards. Picked up what looked like a knee injury late in the game on a play from scrimmage, so his availability for next week is in doubt.
"I'm a little teapot, short and stout..."
Not everything was perfect or very pretty, but overall nothing about a ten point win on the road against an explosive Saints team should be nitpicked or taken for granted.
Jim Harbaugh will get most of the attention, as usual, for his gutsy call to stick with Colin Kaepernick at quarterback, and while that move mostly worked out, the real star of the show has to be defensive coordinator Vic Fangio, whose charges played brilliantly (far more so than in last January's playoff win at any rate) in the win.
Fangio dialed up far more blitzes, both of the conventional and zone variety, than normal, and his front seven overwhelmed a Saints team that had surrendered just 16 sacks in 10 games coming into this one. The Niners sacked Drew Brees five times in the second half, hounded him a handful of other times, and just made it miserable for the Saints to sustain any kind of offense from the middle of the third quarter on.
The pass rush forced Brees to throw high to Marques Colston on one of his pick sixes, and the other was set up by confusion, as outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks rarely drops into coverage. Brees never saw him and Brooks had an easy catch-and-run for the touchdown that sent the two teams into the locker room tied at half and changed the course of the game.
Offensively the difference in the two teams, regardless of who's under center for the 49ers, was on full display, with the Niners managing to find a way to move the chains consistently and get big gains despite none of their stars lighting up the box score. Instead, they got big plays from their backup tight end and their fullback.
There's just so many weapons here, so many formations and personnel groups to deal with, it's almost impossible to contain for a whole game.
There was some dodgy play-calling and clock-managing late in the game with a 10-point lead and I'm not so sure about the decision to kick field goals on either of Akers' late attempts, but it didn't affect the outcome.
The only real negative came from the special teams. David Akers is messed up mechanically, Kyle Williams appears to be injured and Ted Ginn had a muffed punt. Outside of Andy Lee, nobody can be relied on right now, and it will end up costing them in the near future if something isn't done.