Bradley Handwerger / Sports Reporter
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NEW ORLEANS Forget the obvious tension that built up with each passing play Sunday.

Forget that the decibel level reached 118 on San Francisco's final offensive possession.

Forget that the 49ers represented the NFC in the Super Bowl a season ago.

Saints Coach Sean Payton won't hear of Sunday being labeled as a playoff-type game.

'We're going to play bigger games than this,' he said.

There's certainly no arguing that, not after Sunday's 23-20 win over San Francisco.

But here's the thing it was a playoff-type game.

It was two good teams playing tough, physical football.

'To beat a great opponent the way we did, with all three phases stepping up when we needed to to make plays, that's a complete team win,' quarterback Drew Brees said. 'These are the ones that just sharpen you, build confidence in you.'

No question Sunday will be a confidence builder for the Saints.

Only seven times have the Saints won while turning the ball over three times with Payton on the sideline.

When the small things are done right, however, you can overcome malfunctions elsewhere.

So, while three turnovers turned into 17 San Francisco points, the Saints didn't panic.

The defense kept the game close, allowing only 196 total yards, only 6 of 15 third-down conversions and only 81 rushing yards.

The offense calmly, and efficiently, found a way to put up nine points in the final 15 minutes, including a text-book 47-yard drive with just 1:41 to play in the game that set up the winning field goal.

The special teams overcame an early fumble, one that led to a 49ers touchdowns, by returning a kickoff 82 yards to set up one of their own.

These are the games that help a team get from point A to point B and tell the players that it's possible to think big.

So, while Payton can preach the platitude that Sunday was just another game, it wasn't.

'It's not a regular game,' defensive end/outside linebacker Junior Galette said. 'This is a team we know we might see later on down the line.'

Added linebacker Curtis Lofton, 'These guys won the NFC last year. They represented the NFC in the Super Bowl. So you see where you stack up. AS you see today, we stack up against anybody.'

After losing two of three to the Patriots and Jets, the Saints responded the way good teams respond. They've pasted the Cowboys and held on in a brutally physical game against San Francisco.

They've proven they can play both styles of games and, in doing so, sent a message to Seattle, currently the top team in the NFC.

New Orleans isn't going anywhere and, barring something crazy in Atlanta on Thursday, will be fighting for the top seed come Dec. 2 in Century Link Field.

So, yes, there will be bigger games for the Saints.

'The more you win, the bigger the games will get,' safety Roman Harper said. 'We understand that. We've got to continue to win these.'

Sunday, they proved they can do just that.

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