San Francisco 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh has come to appreciate Colin Kaepernick's freelancing, even in the most critical moments.
Kaepernick's game-saving, 51-yard, fourth-down completion to Michael Crabtree amid the chaotic din of the Superdome provided the latest example of why Harbaugh has faith in his quarterback's instincts.
"That wasn't the intent of the play," Harbaugh said of the way Kaepernick scrambled right to escape New Orleans' pass rush before throwing deep back across the field. "Colin does a great job of that. I'm glad he did it that way. I am glad that he has the arm strength to get it that far."
The clutch play on fourth-and-10 set up a tying field goal in the final minute of regulation, and Ahmad Brooks' sack and strip of Drew Brees led to another Phil Dawson field goal in overtime that lifted the 49ers to a 27-24 victory over the Saints on Sunday.
If San Francisco (5-4) winds up narrowly making the playoffs, the sand lot-style Kaepernick-to-Crabtree connection in the Crescent City could go down as a defining moment. The Niners arrived in New Orleans on a two-game skid and three games out in the NFC West. They also trailed three teams in the race for the NFC's two wild card playoff spots, so a third successive loss could have put San Francisco in a tough spot.
"Where we stand in the NFC and our division, we had to win," Justin Smith said, adding that the Saints "didn't have to win as much."
New Orleans (4-5) entered the weekend in first place in the anemic NFC South, and will remain atop the division if Carolina is unable to win at NFC East leader Philadelphia on Monday night.
Still, the Saints exhibited a sense of urgency, briefly turning a 21-10 deficit into a 24-21 lead in the final minutes of regulation.
Brees overcame two first-half interceptions by throwing for two touchdowns to tight end Jimmy Graham. Brees also found Graham for what was nearly a third TD that would have won the game at the end of regulation, but the 6-foot-7 tight end, who played basketball in college, was penalized for apparently shoving defensive back Perrish Cox to the turf.
"Definitely not a push-off," Graham said. "It's interesting, you know, how guys grab me everywhere on the field and I put literally two fingers on somebody and you make that kind of call. That's why I switched; that's why I left basketball, so I could stop being penalized for hitting people."
Here are some things we learned from the Niners' stirring victory in the Big Easy:
TRAVELING WELL: For all their disappointments in the first half of the season, the Niners have played pretty well on the road, where it is often toughest to win in the NFL. San Francisco not only improved to 3-2 on the road, but snapped the Saints' 11-game Superdome winning streak. "It's really us against the other team and their crowd," said defensive back Antoine Bethea, whose interception of Brees set up a touchdown. "We just pull together and play well."
UNHAPPY ENDINGS: The Saints remain highly competitive, but keep folding in crunch time. In four of its five losses, New Orleans led in the final two minutes, only to lose by a field goal or less. Two of their losses have come in overtime, and in both of those games, Saints turnovers in their own territory set up opponents' winning field goals.
DEEP DEFENSE: In addition to suspended linebacker Aldon Smith — who may return next week — the 49ers were missing injured linebackers Patrick Willis (toe) and Dan Skuta (ankle). They still managed to frustrate one of the league's best offenses for long stretches, forcing six punts and three turnovers.
GIVE-AWAYS: While Drew Brees once again is producing yards and points at an elite level, he hasn't yet fixed turnover problems plaguing him this season. His two interceptions gave him 10 through nine games this season. "I can't turn the ball over at the rate that I'm turning it over and I certainly can't turn it over in the situations that I'm turning it over," Brees said. "I'm aware of that."
GROUND GAINS: Both teams' running games are in good shape heading into the second half of the season. The Niners rushed for 144 yards, led by Gore's 81 on 23 carries. New Orleans gained 136 yards on the ground, including 120 by Mark Ingram, who became the first Saints running back since Deuce McAllister in 2003 to rush for 100 yards in three straight games.
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