Bradley Handwerger / WWLTV.com Sports Reporter
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SAN FRANCISCO ― One stop.
When Jimmy Graham caught a pass over San Francisco’s Donta Whitner and galloped into the end zone with 1:48 to play and a three-point lead, that’s all the Saints needed.
One stop for the NFC championship game.
One stop from stamping the divisional round of the NFC playoffs as theirs.
Instead, the old bugaboo that haunted the defense a season ago and seemingly had been moved beyond struck back and struck back at the worst possible time.
Maligned quarterback Alex Smith completed two back-breaking passes to tight end Vernon Davis in front of New Orleans’ Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper and there it was for everyone to see – the defense had not figured things out after all, hadn’t learned to finish strong in key situations.
And now the Saints are out of the tournament, losing 36-32 to the 49ers and heading home for exit interviews instead of accolades for mounting a spirited and downright championship-like comeback.
“We never stopped fighting,” Saints left guard Carl Nicks said. “We never quit. We had this game won. For 40 seconds, if we could have held them, we would have been in the NFC championship. I’m proud to be a part of this team.”
There’s no doubt that the Saints are a championship-caliber team.
No one puts up the numbers the Saints did on offense this season, setting record after record, and isn’t a title-contender.
But those records mean little right now, not when there’s a four-plus hour plane ride to take home that will be quiet and painful and sad.
“It is going to take me a lot of years to look back and feel proud of all these records we have,” right tackle Zach Strief said.
Indeed, this will be much harder to get over than the January 2011 playoff loss to Seattle.
This team was better than last season’s.
Throughout the year, the defense appeared to have fixed its problems, learned how to cover a tight end, figured out how to keep mistakes at a minimum.
They came up with a crucial stop in a road win at Atlanta, a crucial stop in the home win over Tampa Bay and a crucial red-zone stop in a road win at Tennessee.
And for the first 56 minutes of the game, they did just that, holding the 49ers to just 23 points despite being thrust onto the field time and again after five turnovers.
No one will remember that, though.
“We’ve got to be able to stand up as a defense, as a team and rise up like our offense did in the most crucial times and defensively we didn’t do that.,” Saints safety Roman Harper said.
They couldn’t a season ago in the postseason and they couldn’t Saturday, either.
“We knew the opportunity that we had. Just one stop and we were going to win the game,” Saints cornerback Jabari Greer said. “We weren’t able to get that. They made some plays. Ultimately we let some things slip through.”
What might be hardest to take is that for 56 minutes, very little slipped through. Of the 49ers’ 407 total yards, only 242 came prior to then.
It’s not like New Orleans changed anything in the last four minutes, either.
They continued to blitz and they continued to stick with their base Cover 2 defense.
“We went with what had worked throughout the game and they just made a nice throw and catch when it counted,” Saints linebacker Scott Shanle said.
And now the Saints are done, dreaming of what-ifs instead of what could be.
“It stings right now because of the expectation level we had coming into this tournament and understanding, gosh, we win here and we’re into the NFC championship game and then anything can happen,” Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. “It’s tough to swallow at this point.”