Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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SAN FRANCISCO ― The loss of Pierre Thomas on the first series of the game threw a devastating blow to the Saints in their bid to move into the NFC championship game.

Thomas left the game with a concussion after a viciously helmet-to-helmet collision with San Francisco's Donta Whitner, returning only to briefly slap hands with teammates before permanently going to the locker room for the rest of the game.

'Obviously that's tough to lose Pierre, especially the first series for the rest of the game because he's a big part of what we do,' Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. 'We're able to mix and match him and (Darren) Sproles.'

With the loss of Thomas, the Saints relied more heavily on Sproles and briefly, took him out of the game on kickoff return.

That thrust Courtney Roby into his old position of returning kickoffs and it cost New Orleans. Roby fumbled his first return and the 49ers recovered, eventually scoring a field goal.

Sproles returned every other kick.

'Pierre does a lot of things well for us,' Saints coach Sean Payton said. 'Screens are part of it. Darren is the same way. It just meant that those other guys were going to have to pick up the work load.'

Sproles finished the game with 119 yards receiving on 15 catches and three yards rushing on three carries.

His 44-yard touchdown catch late in the fourth quarter gave the Saints their first lead of the game.

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