The 49ers have become used to winning this kind of game.
Since Jim Harbaugh took over in 2011, they have taken care of business in tough environments on the road including games at Green Bay, Atlanta and New England. But Sunday, they couldn't overcome adversity or make the game-changing play when they needed it to put one of the league's best signal callers on ice.
Ultimately, Sunday's game was defined by the narrow margin that separates winning from losing.
San Francisco lost because it couldn't get the key defensive stop when they needed it (legally, anyway). The offense failed to execute the typical late-game, clock churning scoring drive that's broken the back of so many opponents over the last two-plus seasons.
When the team needed Colin Kaepernick to make a game changing play, it wasn't there.
With the 49ers up 20-17 with the ball and 7:50 remaining, they needed a productive drive in the worst way. It was the kind of situation last year's team, Kaepernick included, would have relished. It was an opportunity to kill the Saints' hopes by marching down the field, putting up points and letting defense pin its ears back to victory.
Instead, the 49ers went three-and-out, taking just 1:02 off the clock and giving Drew Brees ample opportunity to lead his team to the comeback win.
On 2nd down of that drive, Kaepernick rolled left while Frank Gore's man in the flat came up to take away a running lane from the quarterback. With pay dirt ahead, Kaepernick guided a pass to Gore that was a touch low. Gore couldn't haul it in, leaving the team wondering what could have been. It was a play Gore usually makes.
At worst, Gore would have rumbled down the field for a chunk gain that silenced the raucous crowd and changed field position dramatically. At best, Gore would have scored, making it a 10-point game with half of the final quarter remaining.
On the next play, Kaepernick lofted a ball deep down the right side for Jon Baldwin - a former first-round pick that stands 6-4 with a 40-inch vertical jump - that went unseen by the receiver. Baldwin looked up and the ball fell a few yards beyond where he stood. Had he been able to locate it, it would have required the exact type of highpoint catch he was drafted to make.
To that point, the 49ers' defense was doing it's job, limiting one the NFL's great quarterbacks to a pedestrian afternoon by his standards.
That wasn't the only drive San Francisco's offense didn't execute as it should have. But it was perhaps the most emblematic of the day. Kaepernick led an offense that held the ball for just 8:46 in the second half, leaving the defense on the field to combat the league's No. 2 scoring team.
Neither team played very well. And if the 49ers had won, observers would point to a number of mistakes made by New Orleans (8-2) as their downfall. San Francisco (6-4) scored 17 of its 20 points off three Saints turnovers. The other three points came on Phil Dawson's 29-yard field goal after the Saints turned it over on downs at the 49ers' 40-yard line late in the third quarter.
Half of the 49ers' drives (5 of 10) were three-and-outs. There was a 10-point swing in the second quarter after Corey White fumbled an interception return for a touchdown out of the back of the end zone, that wound up a 49ers' touchback. The end result was Dawson's 55-yard field goal that made the score 10-7 49ers. The Saints were a yard away from owning a 14-7 lead instead.
As poorly as the offense played overall, San Francisco still found itself on the right side of a number of breaks. But there became one huge exception in the fourth quarter.
When Ahmad Brooks was flagged for "clothes-lining" Brees late in the game, it took the breath out from a defense that thought it had done enough to win the game. Brooks' hit was deemed illegal and negated a fumble that would have given the ball to San Francisco with a three-point lead. Instead, Garret Hartley hit one of his three field goals of the quarter to tie the game at 20.
Again, the 49ers authored a three-and-out drive, giving the Saints the ball back with enough time to go 47 yards and win the game. On that drive, Kaepernick failed to get out-of-bounds on a third-down scramble that gave New Orleans 40 seconds of extra time and allowed them to save their final timeout. That was compounded by Kassim Osgood's hit on Darren Sproles on a punt return after he called for a fair catch, giving them the ball at their own 40 with 1:41 to work worth with, needing just a field goal to win.
Kaepernick finished with just 127 yards through the air on 17 of 31 passing with two touchdowns. He's thrown for less than 200 yards in eight of his 10 games this season.
The loss paired with the Seahawks' (10-1) win over the Vikings Sunday, virtually puts the division title out of reach. The 49ers remain the No. 6 seed in the NFC playoff standings for now, but have the same record as the Chicago Bears and Arizona Cardinals.
Things don't get much easier. They travel to Washington to play on "Monday Night Football" next week, to play a desperate Redskins team. It's only the second time the 49ers have lost consecutive games under Harbaugh. The first preceded a five-game winning streak earlier this season.
The 49ers have just two teams over .500 remaining over the final six weeks. They are still in the driver's seat for a third-straight playoff berth, but their margin for error thinned dramatically after Sunday's loss in New Orleans.
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