The New Orleans Saints are establishing themselves as a complete team entering the stretch run.
Despite a 6-2 start, the knock on the Saints has been their inability to run or stop the run. They have answered that challenge in the last two weeks, beating Dallas behind a dominant ground game and rallying past San Francisco by slowing down running back Frank Gore while containing the scrambles of quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
San Francisco had outrushed New Orleans by the combined total of 287-96 in the 2011 divisional round of the NFC playoffs and the 2012 regular season, but the Saints had a 92-81 rushing edge in their 23-20 win.
"What was encouraging was we were able to create those third downs that we felt were favorable (defensively), and conversely we were able to run the ball," Saints coach Sean Payton said Monday. "In both those areas it was against a real good 49ers front. Ultimately, those two goals were probably the most important keys to winning that game, and we achieved both of them."
New Orleans was near the bottom of the NFL in rushing before gaining a season-high 242 yards against Dallas. After getting fewer than 3.0 yards per carry in the two losses to the 49ers, the Saints averaged 4.0 yards on Sunday.
The Saints were tied for last in average per carry allowed (5.0) entering the San Francisco game. The 49ers were the league's fourth-leading rushing team.
Yet, Gore finished with only 48 yards on 13 carries. Kaepernick ran three times for 25 yards.
Stopping the run "was something we put on our shoulders," defensive end Cameron Jordan said. "We knew it was going to be a physical game. We were ready for that. Clearly, we prepared very well for it and we got the job done."
Add those ingredients to quarterback Drew Brees' prolific numbers along with an improved pass rush, and the Saints (8-2), like their position heading into a Thursday night game against Atlanta. New Orleans trails Seattle by 1 ½ games for the best record in the NFC.
Brees is second to Denver's Payton Manning in passing yards (3,369) and touchdowns (26). New Orleans sacked Kaepernick three times, increasing its season total to 32, two more than in all of 2012.
Getting past defending NFC champions San Francisco was a significant mental boost in itself. Payton revved up the crowd by pumping his arms repeatedly to ask for noise as the 49ers approached the line with 2:01 left. The Saints celebrated more than usual when Garrett Hartley kicked the winning field goal on the final play.
"They had beaten us two years in a row, and we just wanted to prove something to ourselves," wide receiver Robert Meachem said. "We had to get over that hump, and I felt like beating those guys kind of helped us get over that hump."
The only negative for the Saints was losing starting cornerback Jabari Greer in the first quarter to a significant left-knee injury.
Greer, a 10-year veteran who has started for the Saints since arriving from Buffalo in 2009, was taken off the field on a cart and transported to a local hospital. Second-year pro Corey White replaced him.
Payton said he would wait until Tuesday to provide specifics on Greer, but his words weren't positive.
"We're just kind of keeping our fingers crossed with him," Payton said. "It's always difficult when someone like Jabari who has been with us and been a staple of what we've done defensively goes down with an injury like he's sustained."
Meachem, who said he saw Greer in the locker room on Monday morning, did not sound optimistic, either.
"That was a tough one," Meachem said. "You kind of saw it, but you didn't really know if it was that bad. Seeing how he is today, (we are) knowing things are going to be a little different around here."