One team played like Super Bowl contenders down the stretch, the other, a squad that’s still finding its way.
The 49ers (6-4) fumbled a golden opportunity to pick up a win in the Big Easy on Sunday and now they’re fighting for an NFC wild-card spot, a humbling development for a team that started the season with Super Bowl aspirations.
As the 49ers coughed away a six-point lead in the fourth quarter, the New Orleans Saints (7-2) showed Jim Harbaugh’s gang what Super Bowl-caliber teams look like, playing with balance, poise and mental toughness.
Despite three costly turnovers, the Saints managed to sneak out of the Superdome with a win in Week 11 because they played sound football in every facet of the game.
As usual, the Saints showed mastery through the air, racking up 295 net passing yards against the NFL’s eighth-best passing defense. Trailing by six points, quarterback Drew Brees was at his best, picking apart the 49ers’ defense in the fourth quarter, completing 10-of-14 passes for 144 yards, including three gains of 20 or more yards.
By contrast, the 49ers’ aerial attack continued to struggle, accumulating a net total of 115 passing yards one week after QB Colin Kaepernick threw for a career-low 91 yards against the Carolina Panthers. With the game on the line in the fourth, Kaepernick couldn’t make a play to help his team win, completing 2-of-7 passes for 15 yards.
A big difference between Sean Payton’s team and Harbaugh’s squad is that the Saints aren’t one-trick magicians anymore. They picked up 92 yards on the ground (four yards per carry), mixing the run in with the pass, a dimension of balance that’s been lacking in the 49ers’ offense this season.
The Saints are also making plays on defense this year with defensive coordinator Rob Ryan calling the shots. In the fourth, the defense gave Brees a chance to win the game by forcing a three-and-out midway through the quarter and then in the final three minutes, Ryan’s guys sacked Kaepernick and nearly produced a safety with the score tied 20-20.
A defining characteristic of Super Bowl teams is the ability to play Houdini and find ways to win when things are slipping away, another ingredient that’s been missing from Harbaugh’s recipe this year.
In a heavyweight fight, the Saints committed two seemingly fatal mistakes: they muffed a punt in the second quarter, giving the 49ers possession inside the 15, and they fumbled an interception return at the 1-yard line, turning a pick-six into a touchback.
But the Saints overcame their gaffes, playing flawlessly in the fourth when it counted, while the 49ers buckled, crumbling after the refs called an ambiguous roughing-the-passer penalty on Ahmad Brooks and giving away yards on the final drive by interfering with a fair catch.
With six games remaining, the 49ers will need to rally quickly to find the balance, poise and toughness to win out and compete for a trip to the Super Bowl in New York. Without an incredible turnaround, the 49ers will be watching teams, such as the Saints, from the couch in February.
Paul Gackle is a contributor to The San Francisco Examiner. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @GackleReport.