Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS All the Saints had to do was win Sunday.

All they had been battling back from would have been wiped away, their playoff fate firmly in their own grasp.

Instead, 11 months after dashing New Orleans' dreams in the playoffs, San Francisco might have done it again to the Black and Gold.

The 49ers beat, bruised and battered the Saints, leaving the Mercedes-Benz Superdome with a 31-21 win.

For New Orleans, now 5-6, the room for error has all but vanished.

'Going out, we've got to put our best foot forward and keep winning to have a shot to get in the postseason,' Saints center Brian de la Puente said. 'We know that.'

After Sunday, the big picture suddenly becomes small.

The Saints can't afford another loss and that won't be easy, not with games at Atlanta and the Giants, a team that could give New Orleans fits, remaining as well as another against an improved Tampa Bay at home.

No, this isn't the same New Orleans team that started the season 0-4. It's much, much better.

Against San Francisco, the positives were there.

The defense, for the first time this season, held a team to fewer than 400 total yards and only gave up 17 points. It held a run-first team at bay for most of three quarters.

But what we also saw was that for New Orleans to dream of having any postseason aspirations at this point, near perfection is going to be needed.

Certainly New Orleans won't face another defense as athletic, as physical or as menacing as San Francisco's.

Still, quarterback Drew Brees can't have two inexplicable interceptions that get returned for touchdowns. He can't force things when they're not there, as he did on the first interception for a touchdown. And he can't throw high leaving his players out to dry, as he did on the second interception when receiver Marques Colston was injured trying to leap high for an overthrown pass.

The defense can't allow a team to convert 6 of 13 third downs, including three straight on a nine-plus minute drive that all but salts away a game. And they'll have to protect Brees better he was hit seven times and sacked on five drop-backs.

New Orleans still can't win the big games without Brees playing lights out.

Against the best of the best, you've got to play your best and the Saints were far from that for the full 60 minutes.

Now they're in a must-win situation for real. For the next five weeks. For the first time in a long time, the Saints truly are in a 'one-week-at-a-time' spot.

Sunday was a story for the team to learn from from here on out.

'We just put ourselves in some bad positions,' Saints left tackle Jermon Bushrod said. 'We've got to learn from it, don't let it kill us for the rest of the season, put it past us, watch this film, do what we've got to do, hit our playbooks, get our schemes and take this thing out to the practice field.'

The good news is that nobody in the Saints' locker room believes there's not a chance. That kind of thinking aided them when they were 0-4 and the season appeared lost.

They'll have to fall back on that confidence now.

'I firmly believe that if we take care of our business and worry about ourselves, things will happen in a way we envision and we're going to have a chance at the end to get in (the playoffs),' Brees said.

Sunday marked the first loss in November for New Orleans since 2008. That, defensive end Will Smith said, means something.

'It shows we're a winning program and we know how to win in November, which is one of the most important times of the year,' Smith said.

That's the positive thinking it will take to move from Sunday's heart-breaking and head-rattling loss to San Francisco.

The Saints had everything in their grasp, their fate in their own hands.

And now it's not.

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