A last-second field goal from Garrett Hartley was the difference as the New Orleans Saints rallied for the 23-20 win over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday. New Orleans moved to 8-2 (6-0 at home) with the Week 11 victory, while San Francisco dropped to 6-4.
The Saints were down 20-14, but with field goals on their final three possessions, the Saints found what it took to prevail in the end.
The NFC clash more than lived up to the billing. Although some fans might bemoan the lack of scoring and big plays, the contest was dramatic, going back and forth the whole way. Defense was the deciding factor, as New Orleans stepped up late to thwart the San Francisco offense.
The Saints got the first and last scores of the game. Drew Brees hit Josh Hill from three yards out to cap off an 11-play drive that started at New Orleans' 3-yard line and took 6:22 off the clock, putting the Saints up 7-0 midway through the first quarter.
Brees did a great job of chipping away at the 49ers with short passes. He completed eight of his nine attempts on that 97-yard drive.
It wasn't all good for the Saints in the first quarter, though.
In San Francisco's third drive of the game, cornerback Jabari Greer leaped to deflect a pass intended for Jon Baldwin. As he landed, his left leg buckled and bent at an awkward angle. It was the kind of injury that you don't ever want to see again.
Greer would end up being carted of the field.
The Saints confirmed the obvious—Greer wouldn't return to the game, with a reported knee injury.
New Orleans must have wondered what it did to upset the football gods after Darren Sproles was then forced to leave the field as well, per ESPN.com's Mike Triplett.
Sproles was able to return, but his temporary absence would be sorely missed by the Saints—especially on special teams.
With the shifty running back unavailable, Lance Moore took over on punt return duties. Failing to cover himself in glory, Moore muffed a punt in the beginning of the second quarter, which was recovered by Bubba Ventrone.
San Francisco would make the most of the golden opportunity and great field position. On the very next play, Colin Kaepernick hit Baldwin in the end zone from 11 yards out. But after getting both feet down, Baldwin bobbled the ball as he landed out of bounds. It was ruled an incomplete pass and held up under video review after Jim Harbaugh threw the challenge flag.
The 49ers would score on the very next play, though, as Kaepernick connected with Anquan Boldin to tie the game up at 7-7.
After a Saints punt, Phil Dawson hit a 55-yard field goal to give the 49ers a 10-7 lead with 3:34 left in the half.
The New Orleans offense responded swiftly. The Saints were helped out by Travaris Cadet's 82-yard kick return, which put the ball at the San Francisco 21-yard line. Three plays later, fullback Jed Collins punched it in from one yard out for his first score of the year to put the Saints back into the lead, 14-10.
That would be the last of the action for the first half, with both teams struggling to get going offensively. Neither quarterback was able to hit many big plays, and instead had to opt for check-downs and short throws throughout. Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area had the numbers:
Things would open up more in the second half.
On the first drive of the third quarter, Brees had his pass intercepted by Ahmad Brooks. The veteran linebacker would return the pick 22 yards down to the Saints' 22-yard line. Brooks would fumble the ball, only to fall on it and keep it in San Francisco possession.
The 49ers only needed three plays to get the touchdown. Kaepernick hit Vernon Davis from 17 yards out to put San Francisco ahead, 17-14.
Dawson tacked on a 29-yard field goal in the beginning of the fourth to up the lead to six at 20-14. San Francisco was working with a short field after Sean Payton opted to go for it on 4th-and-4 at the 49ers' 40-yard line. It was a gamble that didn't pay off and could've served as one of the costliest decisions of the game had New Orleans been handed their first home loss of the year.
The Saints got a field goal with 7:50 left in the game to cut the deficit to three points, but they should have arguably taken the lead. On the backs of big receptions from Robert Meachem and Marques Colston, New Orleans got a 1st-and-goal at the San Francisco 6-yard line.
With three plays to punch it in, the Saints couldn't get the job done. Pierre Thomas ran it twice, to no avail, and Brees had a pass to Jimmy Graham go for a one-yard loss.
ESPN's Ed Werder questioned the playcalling and sequence.
But after forcing a three-and-out from San Francisco, New Orleans still had life with about seven minutes to go.
The Saints managed to catch a break when Brees fumbled the ball at the 49ers' 35-yard line. There's no doubting that it would have been a fumble, but Ahmad Brooks was flagged for a hit to the head and neck area of Brees.
Mike Pereira, Fox Sports' resident officiating expert, agreed with the call on the field.
Garrett Hartley made his second field goal of the game to tie the score at 20-20 with 2:06 to go.
On the next drive, there was another contentious call. Under heavy pressure in the pocket, Kaepernick unleashed a pass out of bounds from dangerously near the end zone. The Saints wanted intentional grounding. However, the officials ruled that Kaepernick was out of the pocket when he threw the ball.
Once again, Pereira thought the refs got it right.
There wasn't any debate about the flag on Kassim Osgood on the ensuing Andy Lee punt, however. Missing Sproles' fair catch signal, Osgood was flagged for a 15-yard personal foul penalty after barrelling into Sproles.
Bleacher Report's Matt Miller was blunt with Osgood's mental mistake.
That put the ball at the New Orleans 40-yard line, and with 1:41 left Brees had plenty of time to engineer a game-winning drive. He completed three of his four passes, eventually finishing with a 12-yard pitch-and-catch to Jimmy Graham.
That left Hartley with a 31-yard chip shot, which he duly banged home as time expired.
It was a deserved win for New Orleans, as San Francisco's offense couldn't do enough to protect the lead in the fourth quarter.
Key Player Grades
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco 49ers: B-
Once again, it's another so-so performance from Colin Kaepernick. He finished 17-of-31 for 127 yards, two touchdowns and an interception, also adding 25 yards on the ground.
You can't fault Kaepernick too much, because he doesn't have much to work with in that San Francisco receiving corps. However, with the game on the line, he couldn't move the chains.
For a quarterback of Kaepernick's ability, it's not unfair to expect a better performance.
Anquan Boldin, San Francisco 49ers: B+
Anquan Boldin was far and away Kaepernick's most consistent target. Boldin had a great game opposite Keenan Lewis, as the Saints corner had a hard time for much of the game against the physical, veteran wideout.
Boldin led the Niners with six receptions for 56 yards and a touchdown. While those aren't gaudy numbers, they're almost twice what Vernon Davis (four catches, 33 yards), who was next closest, was able to do.
Drew Brees, New Orleans Saints: B+
It almost seems surprising that Drew Brees finished the game with 305 yards, who did it on 30-of-43 passing with one score and interception apiece.
Rarely did Brees have the opportunity to hit the home-run ball. Instead, he had to settle for short throws after checking down to his second and third options. It was a great job by the San Francisco secondary to take Brees' best weapons out of much of the game.
Garrett Hartley, New Orleans Saints: A
With the game on the line, Garrett Hartley was cool as a cucumber. Late in the game, he didn't wilt, nailing all three of his field goals in the final quarter to win the game for the Saints.
Sure, none of the field goals Hartley hit was beyond 42 yards, but there's something to be said for consistency and faith in your kicker. New Orleans knew that if it could get the ball into Niners territory, they could come away with at least three points.
The Saints have an NFC South battle with the 2-8 Falcons on Thursday night. It should be a relatively easy game for New Orleans, while Atlanta is fresh off a 41-28 loss to the Buccaneers. San Francisco has a tricky Week 12 road trip to Washington (3-7). Sure that Redskins defense is a mess, but the offense could make things interesting in the Monday night matchup.