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John DeShazier: Saints win over 49ers most satisfying of the season

Team was resilient, pulled out victory on Hartley's kick

It wasn't a playoff win-or-go-home game, a battle for first place in the division or an extension of the norm this season in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, where New Orleans Saints victories had become increasingly lopsided, to the point where the average score in the previous five wins was 35-15.

But what the Saints' 23-20 victory on Sunday over the San Francisco 49ers very well could have been was the team's most satisfying win of the season.

New Orleans, now 8-2 and having won one more game than it did all last season, has been more complete in victory. It was thorough and dominant in a 49-17 rout of the Cowboys.

But it has not been more resilient.

Three times, the Saints turned over the football and once, they failed to convert on fourth down. Each time – off a muffed punt and an interception return fumbled out of the end zone in the second quarter, and an interception and incompletion on fourth-and-4 in the third – the Niners converted the gift into points with a touchdown, field goal, touchdown and field goal, respectively.

But the Niners (6-4) were shut down and out otherwise. The odometer reading for their four scoring drives was 125 yards and for the game, just 196.

And the Saints stayed in the game with scores from two unlikely sources (a 3-yard touchdown pass to rookie tight end Josh Hill and a 1-yard scoring run from fullback Jed Collins), and won it on three fourth-quarter field goals by kicker Garrett Hartley, who was 16 for 22 on attempts before Sunday and had missed four of his previous six tries.

Hartley's final kick was a 31-yarder as time expired, to put a bow on the 16th fourth-quarter comeback win by quarterback Drew Brees.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Coach Sean Payton said. "I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game.

"It was a good team we played. That was a really good game. They are a real good team and we respect them and it was a good, hard-fought win."

It also was the second time the Saints have won this season as time expired and the third time they've won inside the final minute.  Hartley also kicked a game-winner on the road against Tampa Bay as time expired, and safety Roman Harper intercepted a pass in the end zone against Atlanta in the season opener with 43 seconds remaining to finish off a 23-17 win.

"I would definitely say (the recent misses) tested me, (but) not physically," Hartley said. "It was really funny that this happened the way that it did because on the way to the stadium I was on the phone with (former NFL kicker and Saint) John Carney. I was picking his brain a little bit.

"He told me the same thing he did in the NFC championship game (in 2009, when Hartley's 40-yarder in overtime proved to be the game-winner against Minnesota, sending the Saints to the Super Bowl). [internal-link-placeholder-0]

"When it comes down to the wire, just take yourself out of it. You can't control anything else other than getting the opportunity. That's just the way things unfolded. This one is just a little bit sweeter."

And it didn't sting at all that the win kept the Saints a game behind Seattle (10-1) in the loss column for the top record in the NFC, and 1.5 games ahead of Carolina (6-3) before the Panthers play New England on Monday night.

But the triumph required the Saints bouncing back and covering their own errors multiple times, and shutting down the 49ers when they absolutely had to. The Niners only committed one turnover, but were held to 196 yards (just 81 rushing, on 22 carries) and 12 first downs, and lost the time of possession battle 34:39-25:21.

The Saints struck first with an 11-play, 97-yard touchdown drive in the first quarter that lasted 6:44 and ended on Brees' 3-yard pass to Hill, who caught his first NFL touchdown. Brees completed 30 of 43 passes for 305 yards and a touchdown, with an interception.

The Saints' defense held and forced a punt on San Francisco's next possession, but sure-handed receiver Lance Moore, who subbed for temporarily injured Darren Sproles as the punt returner, muffed the punt and Niners safety Bubba Ventrone recovered at the Saints' 11-yard line.

Two plays later, Colin Kaepernick (17 for 31 for 127 yards and two touchdowns, with an interception) threw a touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin to tie the score at 7-7 with 10:16 left in the first half.

The Saints punted and jumped the Niners on their next possession. San Francisco moved from its 27 to its 37-yard line, lost a yard on first down from there and on second-and-11, cornerback Corey White jumped a route inside and intercepted a pass intended for Mario Manningham at the Niners' 44-yard line.

White sprinted toward the end zone, saw that he was close to being tackled inside the 5 and dived for the pylon as he tried to extend the football. But the ball slipped out as he launched and it sailed out of the end zone for a touchback.

The Niners took over on their 20, drove to the Saints' 37 and took a 10-7 lead on Phil Dawson's 55-yard field goal.

The Saints immediately responded. Travaris Cadet returned the kickoff 82 yards to the San Francisco 21, Brees passed to Pierre Thomas for 10 yards, Thomas ran for 10 yards and Collins plunged in from a yard out to give New Orleans a 14-10 lead it carried into halftime.

The Niners took advantage of Brees' interception to put together a three-play, 22-yard touchdown drive to re-take the lead in the third quarter, then opened the fourth-quarter scoring with Dawson's 29-yard field goal that happened after the Saints turned over the ball on downs at the San Francisco 40-yard line.

But from there, the Saints scored on their final three possessions, all Hartley field goals, the final two after forcing three-and-outs on defense.

Hartley's 21-yarder pulled New Orleans to within 20-17 and his 42-yarder tied the score at 20-20 with 2:06 left. And his 31-yarder – after New Orleans' heady use of the two-minute warning and two timeouts, and a critical 20-yard pass from Brees to Marques Colston on second-and-10 from the San Francisco 45 – won it.

Colston, with five catches for 80 yards, became the franchise career leader in receiving yards (7,883) and yards from scrimmage (7,890).

"I'll do anything I can to help get the win," he said. "I think everyone in this locker room has the same feeling. That's what makes us a good team."

That, and the resilience shown by the whole, who dug a hole, and by the kicker, who booted his way out of one.

"I told him (last week) we believe in you and that you are our guy," Brees said of Hartley. "We all did. I saw a lot of guys here and there giving him a pat on the back.

"It doesn't always go the way that you planned. Sometimes you have to fight through the adversity. It molds you and strengthens you and allows you to become the player that you are meant to be."

And, perhaps, the team you are meant to be, as well.

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