Saints alive! Breathtaking Bush buries 49ers

Well, it was a nice little run while it lasted. For more than a month, the 49ers toyed with the idea that they could be a legitimate playoff contender, but they're just not quite at that level yet. They weren't at that level Sunday at the Superdome because they kept chasing Reggie Bush around, but never could seem to catch him when it really counted during a 34-10 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Bush tied a franchise record by scoring all four New Orleans touchdowns, breaking the big plays whenever the Saints seemed to need them and displaying a special ability to go airborne near the end zone and get the ball over the goal line.

"When you give a person with his athletic ability an opportunity to make plays, you've got to count on him to make them if you're a New Orleans Saint," 49ers safety Mark Roman said.

The Saints did just that, counting on Bush to make big plays on third downs and then do the same around the goal line. Bush used his leaping ability to get the ball over the goal line from the 1-yard line early in the second quarter, a play set up by Bush's dazzling catch-and-run through San Francisco defenders on the previous play, which began as a third-and-7 situation from the 15.

But Bush was just getting warmed up. The flashy rookie made San Francisco defenders miss again on an 8-yard touchdown run to put the Saints ahead 14-3 at halftime, then again made plays on his own in the open field on a five-yard scoring reception and a 10-yard run as New Orleans put the game away in the second half after the 49ers made it interesting early in the third quarter.

"We definitely gave him a lot of opportunities with our missed tackles and so forth," said Roman, who had eight tackles but also - like several San Francisco defenders - was guilty of a few whiffs on Bush. "They made the plays when they needed them and, obviously, we didn't. We just didn't execute our formula for winning today."

That's for sure. Frank Gore, the NFC's leading rusher, had just 40 yards on the ground as the Saints stacked the box with eight defenders. The 49ers couldn't take advantage of the Saints downfield as quarterback Alex Smith had a poor game, completing only 14 of his 28 passes while throwing three interceptions. The Saints also had four drive-killing sacks.

The 49ers needed more offense - a lot more - to keep pace with the high-scoring Saints and the NFL's No. 1-ranked offense. San Francisco finished with just 10 first downs and 202 total yards.

It appeared early that the San Francisco defense was up to the task. The 49ers forced quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints to punt after each of their first three possessions, which gained only 33 net yards. But the Saints kept coming, and eventually they got going.

"I thought in the first half our guys did an outstanding job," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said after his 5-7 team suffered its second consecutive loss after assembling a three-game winning streak that put the Niners on the edge of playoff contention. "We were doing a pretty darn good job at that time. But there were just some plays that we did not finish off."

Make that a lot of them. The Saints had 207 of their 375 total yards after halftime and scored 20 unanswered points in the second half to turn a close game into a rout.

The 49ers, however, made it interesting for a few frenetic moments in the third quarter.

After stuffing the Saints on a quick three-and-out after the second-half kickoff, the 49ers struck quickly with Smith hitting Antonio Bryant with a 48-yard touchdown pass to make it 14-10 just four minutes into the third quarter.

Then, catching the Saints off guard, the 49ers perfectly executed yet another onside kick, with Michael Robinson recovering at the San Francisco 41.

"We were right in it," Nolan said. "Then we kicked the onside and got the ball back. I was pretty confident at that time things were going to turn for us."

It was short-lived confidence. The momentum swung back to the Saints drastically on the very next play as Smith, throwing for Bryant, was intercepted by cornerback Mike McKenzie.

McKenzie brought it back 54 yards and appeared to be going in for a touchdown before being tripped up by Smith and fumbling near the goal line. The 49ers recovered, but a replay challenge gave the ball back to the Saints at the 6-yard line. That was one of several calls by the officials that went against the 49ers.

But the San Francisco defense stiffened, and the Saints had to settle for a short John Carney field goal that put them ahead 17-10. The 49ers still were very much in the game.

But not for much longer.

"We gave the ball right back to them (after the onside kick), and you can't do that," Nolan said. "That has not been part of our formula. We have to secure the ball always. That was the turning point in the game for us. I thought it was going to turn our way. And within one play, it goes back the other way."

With the San Francisco offense stumbling around, the defense began to tire. The Saints went on a 12-play, 67-yard drive after a three-and-out by the 49ers, with Bush taking a third-and-goal pass from the 5 and weaving into the end zone to finish the drive.

After Smith was intercepted again by McKenzie on the ensuing drive, the Saints went 91 yards in six plays with Bush again vaulting several yards in the air to finish the drive with a 10-yard scoring run. The ball came out near the goal line at the end of that run, but once again a San Francisco challenge was in vain.

The key play of that drive typified the disappointing afternoon for the 49ers. San Francisco had New Orleans pushed back into a third-and-11 situation at the 8-yard line, but Brees flipped a quick flare pass to Bush in the flat, and once again the 49ers couldn't stop him. Bush exploded for a 74-yard gain down the right sideline, and would have gone for a 92-yard touchdown had he not lost control of the ball on his own and stepped out of bounds at the San Francisco 14.

"We did not take advantage of some plays that we could have made," Nolan said. "And as we all witnessed, Reggie Bush made some plays."

Bush finished with just 37 yards rushing on 10 carries, but his three rushing touchdowns are the figure that stands out.

Bush also had a game-high nine receptions for 131 yards - the bulk of Brees' 186 yards passing, which snapped his string of five consecutive games of 300 yards or more passing. The Saints piled on a lot of late rushing yards behind Deuce McAllister, who finished with 136 yards rushing on 26 carries.

What had been a competitive game snowballed on San Francisco at the end, and Nolan expressed his frustration that the 49ers couldn't keep this one close to give themselves a chance at the finish, which is where they appeared to be headed in the third quarter.

"There just seems to be ..." Nolan said, before hesitating. "We're still in the process. I'd love to think that we have that sucker nailed down, but we don't have it quite yet nailed where we can be in perfect spots and still make it happen.

"We're getting better. In that respect, 34-10 doesn't reflect that, but I thought for much of that game, it was looking like it was going to turn in our favor. And then, I'll be damned. It didn't."

In that respect, not even close.

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