Niners find a familiar formula in win over Saints

The 49ers got back to the formula that has got them to three straight NFC Championship Games, running the ball, playing tough defense and converting field goals, for a riveting 27-24 overtime road win over the New Orleans Saints on Sunday.

Now, maybe we can put all those rumors of a divided locker room or coach Jim Harbaugh being on the way out and other such nonsense where they belong — in the trash can.

Harbaugh, and perhaps offensive coordinator Greg Roman, had made a fundamental mistake, thinking they could ride the special abilities of quarterback Colin Kaepernick to a Super Bowl win.

Kaepernick is an unique physical specimen and capable of making plays no other quarterback can. He made another of those Sunday when he spun away from pressure and fired a 51-yard pass to Michael Crabtree, who had gotten behind the Saints' defenders.

But he still remains maddeningly inconsistent, still burning timeouts because he can't get the play called, still taking sacks instead of throwing the ball away because he always thinks he can get away from pressure.

So this idea of playing as many as five receivers and relying on the passing game only works against inferior teams. It didn't even work against the St. Louis Rams, who had won only one game before somehow beating the 49ers last week.

Sunday's win was critical for the Niners because a loss would basically have eliminated their chances for a playoff berth. It's still unlikely that they'll ever catch NFC West leader Arizona, but reigning Super Bowl champion Seattle is still struggling to find an identity. The Seahawks were hurt more than anybody realized by the offseason losses of key defensive players to free agency, along with star receiver Golden Tate. Trying Percy Harvin, with his poisonous personality, didn't work, either.

All this means that the Niners could move up to second place in the division, but only if they play to their strengths.

The offensive line, especially tackle Joe Staley and guard Mike Iupati, played as if it were 2013 again. Last week, the offensive line had collapsed against the Rams' blitzing and Staley called himself (and others) out for a terrible game.

The Saints did plenty of blitzing Sunday — defensive coordinator Rob Ryan comes from a family who believes in aggressive defenses — but the 49ers were able to keep them off-balance by running the ball. At 31, Gore is a physical marvel and when he seemed finally to tire in the fourth quarter Sunday, Harbaugh went to rookie Carlos Hyde, who continued the pounding of the Saints' defense.

And then the defense first saved the game, then won it. Jimmy Graham seemed to have won the game by catching a Hail Mary pass from Brees in the end zone on the Saints' last play in regulation, but pushed off 49ers defensive back Perrish Cox, so the touchdown was nullified. Then the defense forced a Brees fumble in overtime. Harbaugh took no chances, sending Phil Dawson in for the game-winning field goal.

I hope Harbaugh has learned his lesson. Running and defense have won for him under two 49ers quarterbacks. Don't mess with a winning formula.

Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on Email him at

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