Sudden downer in the Superdome

On the final play of a busy afternoon, Jeff Garcia escaped his attackers and dumped the ball to Kevan Barlow, who bobbled it before hanging on, only to get out of bounds a moment too late, a moment after the clock had run out and a victory had proven elusive. In a sense, the last play epitomized a game that trickled away from the 49ers in torturous fashion, an apparent road win against one of the NFC's best teams turning into a 35-27 loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at the Superdome.

``I told them last night, this is going to be like a playoff game and we'll probably see these guys in the playoffs,'' 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. ``I don't know if it will be in our place or their place, but it was probably a playoff preview.''

The 49ers' loss, coupled with Arizona's overtime win over Dallas, sets up a showdown Sunday at Candlestick Park, with first place in the NFC West at stake. Both teams are 4-2.

The Saints and Green Bay Packers share the overall lead in the NFC with 6-1 records. In their final nine games, the Saints only face one more team - Tampa Bay - with a winning record.

Sunday's game had almost everything, including a fan running into the 49ers' huddle in the closing moments, 840 yards of combined offense by the teams, and three lead changes in the final 11 minutes, 14 seconds. The offensive showcase featured only one punt, by the 49ers, all afternoon.

The 49ers led for most of the day, and by 11 points as the fourth quarter began. But the Saints closed to within 24-19 on a 10-yard pass from Aaron Brooks to Joe Horn with 12:35 to play, and a subsequent fumble by Kevan Barlow set up the Saints to take their first lead 81 seconds later, on another Horn touchdown, this one a 20-yarder for a 25-24 edge. After both Horn touchdowns, the Saints tried 2-point conversions, and both failed.

The 49ers quickly regained the lead on a 41-yard field goal by Jose Cortez with 8:39 to play, his second of the game and his 11th consecutive successful attempt. But the Saints, who outscored the Niners by a 22-3 margin in the fourth quarter, would not go away.

``We knew that we could control the game,'' said Horn, who finished with eight catches for 109 yards. ``We knew that we could score. We knew that we could throw the ball at will."

The 49ers were hurt by precisely the Saints who would have been expected to hurt them. Brooks threw for 254 yards and three touchdowns. Horn had his big game. Running back Deuce McAllister carried 21 times for 139 yards, and caught five passes for 35 yards and a touchdown. And return specialist Michael Lewis had several long kickoff returns.

Perhaps the biggest concern for the 49ers, though, was that their defense continued to struggle at stopping opponents on third down.

In the 49ers' 28-21 win at Seattle last Monday night, the Seahawks converted on 10 of 15 third-down chances. The Saints were 10-for-14, and their last four such conversions were on plays on which they needed 10, 14, 12 and 12 yards. Brooks repeatedly was able to elude the 49ers' pass rush just long enough to make third-down plays.

``It's team defense,'' Mariucci said when asked for an explanation. ``It's a little bit of everything.''

Down 27-25, the Saints mounted the 63-yard, 10-play drive that would end with a 22-yard John Carney field goal which gave New Orleans the lead for good. The drive included a 17-yard Horn catch on third-and-12. On an earlier Saints scoring drive, receiver Jerome Pathon caught a 17-yarder on third-and-14 and a 19-yarder on third-and-12.

``We have been doing it throughout the year,'' Pathon said of the third-down success.

Two plays after Carney's go-ahead field goal, Garcia attempted a pass to Tai Streets that was picked off by cornerback Ken Irvin, setting up a 1-yard Brooks touchdown run with 1:56 to play.

Now down by eight points, the 49ers mounted one last drive. They started at their 9, and worked their way to the Saints 39. With no timeouts left, Garcia threw a deep pass to first-year receiver James Jordan, who was in the lineup because of the knee injury that sidelined J.J. Stokes for a second straight week.

But for the presence of cornerback Fakhir Brown, Jordan might have had a shot at hauling in his first NFL reception, and scoring a crucial touchdown in the process. Instead, Brown got in front of Jordan and was able to break up the pass by the right sideline.

``I knew they were coming to me before the ball was snapped,'' Jordan said. ``It was just a point of (Brown) cheating to my side. It was a catchable ball, but he screened me.''

The next play was the pass to Barlow, who made the catch and got out of bounds at the 20 as time expired. Mariucci waited for a moment, hoping the officials would put a second back on the clock, but it didn't happen. Had the 49ers managed to get the late touchdown, they would have needed a 2-point conversion to force overtime.

``I give them a lot of credit,'' said Garcia, who threw for a season-high 275 yards. ``They kept battling. As good a game as we played in ways, it wasn't enough.''

On the plus side for the Niners, they got a second consecutive strong effort from receiver Tai Streets, who started in Stokes' absence. Streets caught six passes for 80 yards.

But in the end, the offense couldn't score when it needed to, and the defense couldn't make the one big stop that might have changed the outcome.

``We knew this game was going to boil down to the fourth quarter,'' Saints coach Jim Haslett said. ``They were coming off a Monday night game and we wanted to be physical with them and I thought we did a good job of that. We wanted to keep it close and win the game in the fourth quarter.''

Mariucci said, ``They climbed back into it and made a heck of a game of it. It was close at the end. I was hoping to get another shot at it. I was hoping that somebody was going to say that we had one more second left.''

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