NEW ORLEANS — Garrett Hartley had to listen to questions for a week about his job status.
Turns out, bringing in five kickers for a tryout was exactly what Hartley needed to get out of his rut.
Hartley hit a game-winning 31-yard field goal as the clock expired Sunday and the Saints beat San Francisco 23-20.
"I love how he (Hartley) responded," said head coach Sean Payton. "I'm proud of him."
New Orleans did it by overcoming three turnovers, a six-point fourth-quarter deficit and three Hartley field goals in the final 5:33 of the game.
"I'm proud of them," said Payton. "We fought through a lot of tough breaks. Our guys hung in there and deserved to win the game - I thought."
Sunday marked only the seventh time with Coach Sean Payton on the sideline that the Saints have won when turning the ball over at least three times. Four of those wins came in the Super Bowl season.
They might be on their way to something special once again.
Quarterback Drew Brees went 30-for-43 for 305 yards and a touchdown. His interception early in the third quarter nearly cost the Saints.
But his clutch passes to Marques Colston and Jimmy Graham as the clock wound down put the Saints in position for Hartley’s field goal.
The defense, though, was once again at its best, keeping San Francisco (6-4) to just 196 total yards, including only 81 on the ground. On San Francisco’s final series, a nine-yard sack by Junior Galette put the 49ers on their heels and they didn’t recover.
Colin Kaepernick was just 17 of 31 for 127 yards, two touchdowns and one interception. Frank Gore, meanwhile, had just 48 yards on 13 carries.
The win keeps pressure on Seattle for the lead in the NFC as well as Carolina, which entered the weekend just a game behind the Saints (8-2) for the lead in the NFC South.
After matching three-and-outs on each team’s first series, the Saints’ offense began its march on the NFL’s No. 6 total defense. New Orleans converted two third downs and behind an aerial attack, drove 97 yards in 11 plays to take a 7-0 lead when Brees hit tight end Josh Hill for a two-yard score.
New Orleans’ defense, meanwhile, kept up the pressure that harried the Dallas offense a week earlier. San Francisco had just 18 total yards 15 minutes into the game.
The lead wouldn’t last long.
Lance Moore, in to return the punt because Darren Sproles was injured on the previous offensive series, muffed a punt and San Francisco recovered at the New Orleans 11. Two plays later, Kaepernick hit Anquan Boldin for a game-tying touchdown.
And then it got crazy.
Corey White, in for an injured Jabari Greer, jumped in front of Mario Manningham on San Francisco’s next series, intercepting Kaepernick. But as he was nearing the goal-line, Kaepernick chased him down and as the cornerback was diving into the end zone, he lost the ball and it flew out of the back of the end zone for a touchback.
A lengthy review confirmed the ruling and the Saints’ defense was called back on the field. Six plays later, the defense stiffened and forced a 55-yard Phil Dawson field goal.
San Francisco led 10-7, but the half wasn’t nearly finished.
Travaris Cadet’s 82-yard kickoff return put the Saints in scoring position immediately and three plays later, Jed Collins scored on a one-yard fullback dive. New Orleans retook the lead 14-10 with less than two minutes to go in the second quarter.
On the opening possession of the third quarter, Ahmad Brooks came up with the game’s next big play, intercepting an errant Brees' pass. Kaepernick then found Vernon Davis alone in the end zone for a 17-yard touchdown and a 17-14 San Francisco lead.
New Orleans’ only other third-quarter possession ended when the Saints went for it on fourth-and-four. Brees’ pass to Hill was bobbled before Donte Whitner knocked it out of bounds.
The 49ers responded with a 13-play drive, but New Orleans’ defense stiffened, forcing a 29-yard Dawson field goal.
With most of the fourth quarter to play, the Saints trailed 20-14.
They’d whittle the deficit down to 20-17 on a 21-yard Garrett Hartley field midway through the quarter.
A defensive stop by the Saints gave New Orleans the ball with a little more than six minutes to play and they began methodically moving down the field. They got bailed out when Brees was hit by Brooks around the neck, a tackle that forced a fumble that San Francisco’s Patrick Willis recovered. That recovery was nullified as the officials ruled a personal foul penalty on Brooks - a ruling the Niners did not like.
Instead of San Francisco ball, the Saints retained possession. An intentional grounding penalty, however, put the Saints in second-and-21 and New Orleans settled on a game-tying Hartley 42-yard field goal