SAN FRANCISCO – One team is the defending Super Bowl champion, the other has some vague notion about being a playoff contender. But at times Monday night, it was difficult to decipher which team was the New Orleans Saints and which was the San Francisco 49ers.
The Saints occasionally struggled to move their explosive offense. The 49ers made big plays and kept themselves in the game when it seemed it might slip away. But in the end, one of them is still a very, very good team and the other is still learning how to win.
The Saints (2-0) weren't going to lose and didn't, although they needed a late turnover and a Drew Brees drive in the final 1 minute, 14 seconds to beat the 49ers 25-22 on a 37-yard Garrett Hartley field goal with no time remaining.
"There's no such thing as an ugly win," guard Carl Nicks said.
No, but there could be consequences. Running back Reggie Bush was carted off the field in the fourth quarter and was walking on crutches after the game. He said he hurt his leg on a punt return, although he wasn't sure how serious it is.
After enduring a week of turmoil involving their play calling, the Niners (0-2) at least found something they can build on. Offensive coordinator Jimmy Raye called plays from the coaches' booth, quarterback Alex Smith word a wristband to help speed up plays, and there were flashes of cohesiveness in the offense, which had been missing in a season-opening 25-point loss to the Seattle Seahawks.
But they also committed four turnovers – two Smith interceptions and two fumbles – that gave New Orleans big opportunities to score.
"The thing I told our team is, in this league it's very difficult to win football games when you're laying the football down, when you're giving the football up," coach Mike Singletary said. "It's hard to overcome if you're on the road, it's hard to overcome at home.
"We have to learn how to protect the football consistently. When we do that, I think we'll give ourselves a chance to be a good football team."
If nothing else, Smith proved he may be on the verge of finding himself as a quarterback. He had his moments of indecision and errors, but he also led the 49ers on two second-half touchdown drives, one that gave them a 14-9 lead and another that tied the game 22-22.
"A lot of emotions right now," Smith said. "Frustration – I mean, in the end, it's a loss just like last week. You lose by one (point) or lose by whatever. It doesn't matter."
There was no overcoming Brees, who was 28 of 38 passing for 254 yards and took the Saints from their own 30-yard line into field-goal territory. The decisive play: a 30-yard pass to Marques Colston that put New Orleans on the Niners' 18.
"Certainly, there will be some things we can look to clean up, but that was a great team win," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We came in with the mindset that we were going to win the turnover battle and we did that decisively."
It was actually overwhelming. Two of Smith's interceptions came inside the New Orleans 30, and a fumble by San Francisco punt returner Phillip Adams at his team's 15 led to a Saints field goal and a 22-14 lead.
With 2:08 left in regulation, Smith brought the 49ers back with an impressive 82-yard drive in eight plays, including two runs on his own – each one for 12 yards that gave the 49ers first downs. Frank Gore, who finished with 112 yards rushing and 56 receiving, ran in for the final seven.
They still needed a two-point conversion, and Smith's pass to tight end Vernon Davis at the goal line needed to be reviewed before it was called good.
Overtime? It seemed so, but Brees worked methodically and put the Saints in position to win on Hartley's field goal.
"We've been here before," Brees said. "We knew exactly what we had to do – just find a way to win. We had all the confidence in the world, no matter who's on the field, whether it's the offense that needs to come up with a big play or the defense coming up with a big stop or special teams.
"We've show we can win a lot of ways."
Good teams do that kind of thing.