Ralph Malbrough Contributing Writer
You know what greatness looks like? It's when someone can play the game the way their opponent wants and still win. The Saints had their most impressive win of the season against the San Francisco 49ers Sunday because the game went exactly how the 49ers needed it to go for them to win and yet the Saints still gritted out a 23-20 victory.
The 49ers live off turnovers and the Saints gifted them a handful by giving San Francisco a short field thus allowing them to try and overcome their NFL-worst passing offense. San Francisco made the game a nasty street fight and the Saints were up to the challenge.
We know the Saints aren't losing a shootout in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome, now we know they can win anyway the other team wants to play. A lot of teams can only win a game if it goes a certain way but the 2013 Saints can win many ways. Teams that do that go a long way in January.
The Saints had a couple of self inflicted wounds when Lance Moore dropped a punt and Corey White fumbled on his way to a touchdown after a fantastic interception. The Saints also had a very questionable intentional grounding call go against them late which made Garrett Hartley's game tying field goal 15 yards further away.
The Saints did get two huge breaks. First, Frank Gore has a huge drop which could have helped the 49ers salt away the game. If he catches the short pass from Kaepernick he still might be running. The second was Drew Brees nearly got decapitated and the penalty allowed the Saints to continue the game tying drive. Let the record show it wasn't so much a penalty on Ahmad Brooks as it was an assault which usually gets a person two to five years in prison. After seeing the replay it wasn't that bad but elite quarterbacks get that call every time. EVERY TIME.
The Saints showed the revitalized running game against Dallas wasn't a fluke as they ground out 93 yards on 22 carries against the 49ers top 10 rated rush defense. It wasn't so much the amount of yards or attempts that mattered as much as it made the 49ers respect the Saints running game. The Saints won the battle of the line of scrimmage on offense and defense. In the two previous 49ers match-ups that wasn't the case. The offensive line played its best game of the year and if they can show this consistency on the road I give you permission to start looking for flights to New York on Expedia for February.
Besides the Saints winning by playing the 49ers style of game the biggest thing to come out of Sunday's game is Rob Ryan's defense showed a critical strength; the ability to completely dominate a one dimensional team.
The 49ers jam the ball down your throat because their receivers have no speed and create no separation to give easy completions to Colin Kaepernick. Rob Ryan knew this and held them to 81 yards on 23 carries. The 49ers longest run by a running back was one run of 24 yards by Frank Gore. If a team plans on doing well against the Saints defense they better be able to do more than one thing well on offense. The 49ers are not that team and they aren't going to the Super Bowl with that passing offense.
About the only thing bad that happened to the Saints defense was Jabari Greer's awful leg injury. Besides that they really were almost flawless. San Francisco had only 196 total yards of offense and 17 of the 49ers points came off turnovers plus one questionable decision by Sean Payton to go for it on fourth down and give San Francisco the ball at their own 40-yard line. As good as the Saints were last week against Dallas, I'd argue they were just as good Sunday.
Drew Brees did have one horrible throw but don't let that overshadow his tremendous play late to help get the win. On the Saints last two drives he completed 7 throws including a really nice one to Marques Colston for 20 yards. Colston also became the Saints all time leading receiver and total yards leader on Sunday.
Oh and Garrett Hartley very well might have saved his job. Sean Payton said "I love how he (Hartley) responded. I'm proud of him."
I'm sure he was but let's not kid ourselves, if Hartley misses either of those last two field goals whether the Saints would have a new kicker Thursday would have been Topic A all week. Give the guy credit, at times he looks bad but he can make game winners and can shake off struggles. He is resilient, mentally tough, and I like both those things in a kicker.
So at 8-2 where are the Saints in the big picture? If New England beats Carolina tonight the Saints will have a two game lead in the NFC South and for the second seed in the NFC. The Saints face a quick turnaround against an Atlanta team who looks worse and more disinterested by the week. Survive that and then the Saints can head to Seattle with a chance to climb to the top of NFC mountain in December.
If you thought the ear splitting noise and knock down drag out win Sunday was fun, you are going to love the final six weeks of 2013.
Ralph Malbrough is a Saints fan living in Houston. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org, find him on facebook, follow him on twitter at https://twitter.com/SaintsForecast or download his podcast at Itunes.