Another tough time for 49ers in the Big Easy

Leave it to the New Orleans Saints to deal the 49ers a harsh dose of comedown reality. Entering the Louisiana Superdome on a high of surging momentum Sunday afternoon, the error-prone Niners limped away three hours later with their confidence bruised and their two-game winning streak finished as Drew Brees and Co. rolled over them again for the third year in a row during a 31-17 throttling.

This was nothing new for the 49ers, who were flattened by the Saints 34-10 here two years ago, then embarrassed by New Orleans 31-10 on their home field in San Francisco last season.

While this one suggested the 49ers are getting closer to their former NFC West rival, it also showed San Francisco still hasn't come up with an answer for Brees and his high-powered New Orleans offense that piled up 467 total yards against a 49ers defense that entered the game ranked ninth in the NFL.

Most of that damage came through the air against a San Francisco passing defense that ranked seventh in the league entering the game after its shutdown of a dangerous Detroit passing game last week.

But there was no shutdown of the Saints. Far from it. In fact, there wasn't even much of a slowdown. Brees, after a lukewarm start, completed 23 of 35 passes for 363 yards and three touchdowns while beating the San Francisco secondary deep throughout the day.

Brees had completions of 81 yards to Devery Henderson and 52 yards to Robert Meacham among his many big plays, and he also hit Lance Moore for a 33-yard touchdown pass and Meacham for a 47-yard score that put the Saints in command at 21-6 one minute before halftime.

That ultimately gave New Orleans all the points it would need to beat the 49ers for the fifth consecutive time since the NFL realigned its divisions in 2002 and moved the Saints into the NFC South.

"We didn't do a whole lot of good things – offense, defense or special teams," 49ers coach Mike Nolan said. "You can go from run game, pass game, kicking game … and if there's another game, you can include that one, too. There's really no one that I can point out that played well."

The 49ers can point to three killer turnovers by quarterback J.T. O'Sullivan that prevented San Francisco from ever getting it going like the Niners had done the previous two weeks in victories over Seattle and Detroit.

O'Sullivan's first turnover – a lost fumble after he was hit from the blind side while attempting to scramble out of the pocket – led to a short field New Orleans converted into a touchdown that gave the Saints their first lead at 7-3 early in the second quarter.

Attempting to bring back the 49ers from behind in the second half, O'Sullivan then tossed back-to-back interceptions in the New Orleans end zone on consecutive drives to abort any San Francisco hopes of a comeback reminiscent of the Niners' rousing Week 2 rally at Seattle.

O'Sullivan's first pick came after the Niners had narrowed the margin to 21-9 on Joe Nedney's third field goal and had driven 69 yards in 10 plays to the New Orleans 10. But just when it appeared the Niners were going in to make it a five-point game, O'Sullivan was intercepted by safety Kevin Kaesviharn.

On San Francisco's next possession, O'Sullivan drove the 49ers from their 40 to the New Orleans 16, where he again made an ill-advised throw on first down that was intercepted by cornerback Tracy Porter.

"The cornerback just kind of sat on it and broke under me and made a play on the ball," said 49ers receiver Arnaz Battle, the intended target on the play. "It's just something that happened."

That seemed to be the way it happened all afternoon for the 49ers, who came out strong and took the early initiative but then allowed the Saints to seize control midway through the first half. It was mostly downhill the rest of the day for San Francisco.

Putting good heat on Brees, San Francisco forced a New Orleans punt on the game's opening possession. The 49ers then moved right down the field on their first possession, driving 63 yards before settling for a 47-yard Nedney field goal and 3-0 lead.

But then the Saints seemed to find the key to thwarting the 49ers – putting pressure on O'Sullivan. He was sacked six times and either hit or pressured practically every time he attempted to pass.

The NFL's fourth-rated passer entering the game, O'Sullivan finished 18 of 36 for 257 yards with one touchdown, two interceptions and a game passer rating of 59.6.

O'Sullivan's 5-yard scoring pass to Isaac Bruce and his shovel pass to Frank Gore for the ensuing two-point conversion brought the 49ers within 28-17 with four minutes remaining, but it was too little, too late.

Still, the 49ers showed plenty of signs of life on offense, only to be undone by their own mistakes. Gore averaged 5.1 yards per carry while rushing for 82 yards, and he had 113 yards from scrimmage. With starter Bryant Johnson hurting, Battle had a breakout day with game-high totals of seven receptions for 120 yards.

But the 49ers were 0 of 5 on third-down attempts in the first half, and they were just 1 of 4 on red-zone opportunities. The 49ers had the ball inside the New Orleans 20 on each of their first four drives of the second half, but only came away with 10 points on those drives.

"We were moving the ball in the second half but couldn't get things done in the red zone," Battle said. "(The Saints) were able to do that, and they made a lot of big plays offensively. They were just the better team today."

There was no doubt about that. Getting a boost from running back Deuce McAllister, who had just 10 yards rushing entering the game but finished with 73 up-the-middle yards on 20 carries, the New Orleans offense churned out 24 first downs and averaged 7.0 yards per play as the 49ers were clearly whipped on defense for the first time this season.

And clearly whipped on the scoreboard for the first time, for that matter.

"As I told the team, we all share this loss, coaches and players alike," Nolan said. "The way we played in every phase, nobody gets a free pass on this one."

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