SAN FRANCISCO ― Alex Smith did his best Drew Brees imitation, pulling off 80 and 85-yard drives in the game’s final four minutes and two seconds as the Saints twice took the lead with dramatic plays during that span only to see the Niners move swiftly and deliberately down the field in a 36-32 victory that will be remembered for a long time.
"It's kind of an unbelievable game the way it went back and forth," said Saints head coach Sean Payton after the game. "Credit San Francisco for making one more play than us."
Vernon Davis caught a 14-yard strike from Alex Smith with nine seconds to go to provide the margin of victory just minutes after it appeared that Jimmy Graham would be the hero after a 66-yard run and catch gave the Saints a 32-29 lead with 1:37 to go.
That dramatic play came after Smith staked San Francisco to a 29-24 lead on a 28-yard quarterback rollout for a score on a play that seemed to totally fool the Saints.
Smith’s big play came after Darren Sproles caught a 44-yard scoring pass from Drew Brees with 4:02 to go that gave the turnover-plagued Saints their first lead at 24-23.
It was a dizzying display of offensive firepower by an expected source - the Saints - and an unexpected one - the 49ers.
"We knew the challenge coming in," said Brees. "We traded punches all day long. We mounted a great comeback, but it wasn't enough."
All of that furious scoring came after an intense and low-scoring first 55 minutes and 58 seconds that was punctuated by five Saints turnovers that allowed the 49ers to have scoring drives of 4, 3 and 6 yards.
New Orleans looked primed to score on the game’s opening drive, moving to San Francisco’s 7. But on third-and-six, running back Pierre Thomas caught a pass from Drew Brees, turned up field and was knocked out by 49ers safety Donta Whitner.
Thomas fumbled, giving the ball to San Francisco at the 49ers’ 2.
The Saints forced a punt and appeared to have San Francisco’s offense under control.
A sack on third-and-eight forced a punt from deep within Saints territory and two plays later, the 49ers took a 7-0 lead when Alex Smith hit tight end Vernon Davis for a 49-yard touchdown. Saints safety Malcolm Jenkins took out Roman Harper and Davis easily walked into the end zone.
On the next series, Brees threw an underthrown pass to receiver Adrian Arrington and 49ers safety Dashon Goldson intercepted the ball, returning it 41 yards to New Orleans’ 4-yard line. Three plays later, Smith had his second touchdown pass of the game, hitting receiver Michael Crabtree for a 4-yard touchdown pass and a 14-0 lead.
It got worse.
On the ensuing kickoff, Courtney Roby, fielding kicks because running back Darren Sproles was being saved for offense with Thomas out, fumbled and San Francisco recovered at New Orleans’ 13.
This time the defense held, keeping the 49ers to a 25-yard David Akers field goal for a 17-0 lead.
And then the Saints offense began to get going.
Brees went 6-for-6 on the drive, carrying the Saints 80 yards to cut into San Francisco’s lead on a 14-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jimmy Graham, who went high over linebacker Patrick Willis for the catch.
With 9:32 to go in the opening half, the Saints were down 17-7 suddenly back in the game after a first quarter that saw everything go wrong.
New Orleans forced a three-and-out and seven plays later, in just 3:04, pulled to within three points when Brees hit receiver Marques Colston over cornerback Chris Culliver for a 25-yard touchdown.
The Saints went to the locker room at halftime down only 17-14, a big moral victory considering the four first-half turnovers.
But on the opening possession of the second half, the bugaboos returned, this time on a Sproles fumbled punt return. San Francisco took over at the Saints’ 25, pushing the lead to 20-14 on Akers’ 41-yard field goal.
John Kasay’s 48-yard field goal cut the deficit to 20-17 with 13:08 to play after Colston couldn’t come down with a long pass in the end zone.
After a Saints punt, 49ers running back Frank Gore nearly broke off a back-breaking touchdown run, but New Orleans cornerback Tracy Porter chased him down. Instead of seven points, San Francisco was held to just three on Akers’ 37-yard field goal.
With 7:36 to play, the Saints were down 23-17.