SAN FRANCISCO – Just as the New Orleans Saints were about to go marching on – and over, and through, San Francisco – the 49ers finally got tough when it counted in a game that most definitely counted. The defense held. The offense scored. And just like that, a corner was turned.
The Niners had been battling uphill for the better part of two seasons to get to this point. They'd been there several times before, only to fall and stumble before they could get to the other side. But not this time. What the Niners saw when they finally got around the Saints 28-27 in the latest thriller involving the team in cardinal red and gold were a few things that haven't been seen around these parts in quite some time. A victory over a team with a winning record, for the first time in 36 games.
A huge defensive stop late in the fourth quarter against a New Orleans offense that had pummeled San Francisco's defense most of the day. A definitive statement, finally, to the rest of the NFL. And, most significantly, a clear view of a playoff berth for the first time since 1998.
"We just beat last year's division champions, a team who beat the Rams already, a very capable team, a big, strong, physical team on both sides of the ball," Niners coach Steve Mariucci said. Yes, they did. But this game was about much more than that. It wasn't just that the Niners beat the Saints to reach midseason with a glowing 6-2 record. It was how they did it. They jumped to leads of 14-3 and 21-11, hitting the Saints equally with big plays and long touchdown drives, using the old Jeff Garcia-to-Terrell Owens passing combination that nobody seems able to stop, then sprinkling in a little bit of Kevan Barlow and a lot of Garrison Hearst on the ground.
"We started fast today," Mariucci said. "I could sense it in the locker room prior to the game. They were just on edge. It didn't require a lot to talk about. They were ready to go. We came to play." The San Francisco offense sure did. Before a normally stingy New Orleans defense knew what had hit it, the Niners had driven for touchdowns on three of their first four possessions. The first two scoring drives ended with passes of 25 and 5 yards from Garcia to Owens.
That gives Owens – who had eight receptions for 100 yards – an NFL-leading 10 touchdowns in eight games. The third scoring drive was all Barlow. After he gained seven yards rushing on the previous play, Barlow took a short flair pass from Garcia and broke away from Saints linebacker Darrin Smith in the flat at the San Francisco 40-yard line. Before he was done rumbling downfield, Barlow had completed a weaving, 61-yard touchdown play by dragging New Orleans cornerback Fred Thomas into the end zone. That gave the Niners a 21-11 lead with 4:46 to play before halftime, and had most in the sellout crowd of 68,083 feeling pretty good about the home team.
But the defense … That was another story. "We've played better," Niners linebacker Jeff Ulbrich said. "We made too many mistakes. We gave up too many yards." Way too many yards. The Saints finished with 488 of them, and they moved through the San Francisco defense at will most of the day, averaging 7.0 yards on their 70 offensive plays.
With halfback Ricky Williams (121 yards on 24 carries) churning for yardage on the ground, and wily quarterback Aaron Brooks (22 of 37 for 374) having big success through the air, the Saints completely took control of the game in the third quarter. When Brooks connected with Joe Horn on a six-yard scoring pass late in the third period – the second Brooks-to-Horn scoring play of the afternoon – the Saints had come all the way back to take a 24-21 lead. And the way New Orleans' defense was shutting down the Niners – San Francisco ran just eight offensive plays in the third quarter and was forced to punt on its first three possessions of the second half – it appeared as though the Saints were a superior team that had seized command and wasn't about to let it go.
But appearances can be deceiving. On New Orleans' first offensive play of the fourth quarter, Williams ploughed through the line once again. But at the end of an eight-yard run, he had the ball stripped away by Niners' end Chike Okeafor. Cornerback Ahmed Plummer recovered the fumble, giving the Niners the kind of break they needed to get back in the game. "We turned it into seven points, didn't we?" Mariucci said. "We needed to capitalize on it. We absolutely had to get some points out of that field position. And we did."
Garcia accomplished that with his fourth touchdown pass of the day, this time hitting rookie tight end Eric Johnson with a 10-yard scoring pass after Hearst had bolted for runs of 11 and 18 yards on consecutive plays. But the Saints just came right back. On a third-and-12 play from the New Orleans 27 on the next series, Brooks hit Willie Jackson (11 receptions, 167 yards) on a crossing pattern, and it appeared he had clear sailing into the end zone. But Niners safety Ronnie Heard was able to get in his way and track him down at the San Francisco 10 after Jackson made an ill-advised cut back into the middle of the field.
"That's one of those plays that can make or break a season right there," Niners safety Lance Schulters said. After the 63-yard gain, the Saints were pushed back to the 18 and had to settle for a field goal that preserved a one-point lead for the Niners with 7:56 still to play. A lead, it turns out, they never would relinquish. "Yes, (New Orleans) had a lot of yards and some points, but when it came down to it at the end, the biggest deals were probably the last three (New Orleans) drives – fumble to set up our touchdown, Ronnie Heard tackles him on the 10 and forces a field goal, and then the last one was a three-and-out," Mariucci said. "So when we had to make a play on defense in the fourth quarter, we got it done. It was terrific."
The Niners also got it done on offense after that final defensive stop. With 3:39 still on the clock after San Francisco took over at its own 28, the Niners still needed to make first downs to keep the ball away from New Orleans. No problem. Just give it to Hearst. The hard-nosed tailback, who rushed for a game-high 145 yards on 17 carries, started the drive with an 11-yard burst. He later would add a seven-yard gain, a 23-yard ramble and a 17-yard dash that took the ball to the New Orleans 3-yard line, where the Niners were able to start celebrating as they ran out the clock.
"To finally put a game away with the offense on the field and the clock running out was a great feeling right there," Garcia said. One of many for the Niners on this Sunday.