NEW ORLEANS – Disappointed as Drew Brees was with the Saints' costly mistakes, he could not help but be impressed by the way his team found a way to pull out a last-second triumph over a playoff-contending team.
Despite three turnovers and a failed fourth-down attempt, New Orleans rallied from a 20-14 fourth-quarter deficit for a 23-20 triumph over the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday.
"You're going to have games like this," Brees said. "We had two critical, or really, three (turnovers) ... That's 21 points that did not swing our way and yet you still find way to win against a playoff-caliber opponent with a lot at stake at this point in the season."
"This game means more the way that we won it, versus had those 21 points gone our way and then all of a sudden you win by three touchdowns," Brees said. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, build confidence moving forward."
The 49ers (6-4) played the tough, opportunistic defense people have come to expect in recent years.
Still, the Saints (8-2) were able to move the ball. Brees completed 70 percent of his passes for 305 yards, leading two touchdown drives in the first half and three field goal drives in the fourth quarter.
The Niners sacked Brees once, intercepted him once and, while leading 20-17 late with only 3:12 left in the game, appeared to have a game-sealing sack.
Ahmad Brooks leveled Brees, jarring the ball loose, and teammate Patrick Willis recovered. But Brooks was called for a personal foul for the way his shoulder pad slammed into the side of Brees' helmet, and for dragging the Saints QB down by his neck.
That gave Brees another chance, and he took advantage.
"You only get so many breaks against a great quarterback like Drew Brees," Niners linebacker NaVorro Bowman said. "The penalty gave him another chance and they converted it."
Here are five things we learned during the Saints' comeback against the Niners:
OLD HANDS: Two of the Saints older receivers, Marques Colston and Robert Meachem, remain capable of coming up big. Colston caught five passes for 80 yards, including two catches of 20 yards or more in the fourth quarter to set up two of New Orleans' final three scores. In the process, Colston, a seventh-round draft choice in 2006, became New Orleans all-time receiver with 7,923 yards, surpassing Eric Martin's record of 7,854 which had stood since 1993.
Meachem, meanwhile, has been quiet much of the season, but came through with a pair of catches for 78 yards.
OFFENSIVE DULDROMS: Colin Kaepernick is coming off a second-straight game in which he failed to connect on a lot of throws.
The Niners, who scored only nine points a week earlier, gained only 196 yards in New Orleans, compared to the Saints' 387.
Kaepernick was missing one of his top targets in Michael Crabtree, who has remained sidelined so far this season while he comes back from an Achilles tendon injury. Kaepernick finished with 127 yards passing and was sacked three times, one week after throwing for 91 yards with one interception and six sacks in a 10-9 loss to Carolina.
"We just didn't make the plays when we had a chance," Kaepernick said.
RUN STUFFING: If there was one area where New Orleans' much-improved defense appeared weak, it was against the run, where they ranked 23rd in the league through Week 10. Against the 49ers, however, the Saints' defense proved it could stop a strong running game when it schemes for it. Niners top rusher Frank Gore had only 48 yards on 13 carries, and the Niners finished with only 81 yards on the ground.
"The linebackers made great plays," Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "Our defensive line held their own."
STILL FORMIDABLE: The Niners have dropped two straight to fall 3½ games behind Seattle for the NFC West lead, and likely will have to aim for a wild-card spot now. That doesn't mean the defending NFC champs are that far off from where they were a year ago. Their past two losses came by three points or fewer to the top two teams in the NFC South, and the 49ers had late leads in both games.
"I am proud of our guys the way they fight," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "If we continue to fight like that, we'll win a lot of games."
CONFIDENT KICKER: Garrett Hartley had missed four of six field goal tries in his previous three games, but didn't let that slump affect him in the clutch against San Francisco. Inside the last eight minutes of the game, Hartley hit from 21, 42 and 31 yards, the last kick coming as time expired to win the game.
"I loved the way he responded," Saints coach Sean Payton said.
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