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49ers Outslug Saints 31-21

Posted Nov 25, 2012

NEW ORLEANS – Sunday afternoon saw the latest “rough, tough, physical football game” coached by San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh.

And he was more than right, not overstating it one bit.

The 49ers ran the same power run play eight times in a row to close out their latest road victory, a 31-21 win over the New Orleans Saints.

Frank Gore didn’t want to come out of the game with a 10-point lead either. The 49ers all-time leading rusher had blood spots on his gold pants and a tattered jersey to match. No matter, Gore wanted to seal the deal in San Francisco’s hard-fought win over the Saints.

“When it’s time to get dirty, we can do it,” said Gore, who finished with a game-high 19 carries for 83 yards.

The physicality of Sunday’s win was noticeable throughout the game, but so was the playmaking for San Francisco. The team scored twice on offense and twice on defense in Colin Kaepernick’s first road start.

All the contributions made for a successful start for the young signal-caller.

“Colin played well in a tough environment,” Harbaugh said. “He acquitted himself very well… I thought he did a good job of managing the game, getting the team in and out of the huddle.”

The 49ers had trouble with the deafening third-down sounds of the Superdome, but managed to convert 6-of-13 third-down conversions. Conversely, the Saints only converted 3-of-11 third downs.

“It was a big part of the game,” Harbaugh said. “I felt like we won those battles.”

Kaepernick posted a better passer rating than his counterpart Drew Brees (90.6 to 86.1) and completed 16 of 25 passes for 231 yards and one touchdown.

Defensively, the 49ers held the high-powered Saints offense to 290 yards and sacked Brees five times, while picking up 375 of their own.

Kaepernick stepped into one of the rowdiest road environments for his first start away from Candlestick Park and shined.

When the team led by seven points late in the game, Kaepernick completed three, third-down passes to set up a 27-yard David Akers field goal. The kick capped a 16-play scoring drive that went for 85 yards and took 9:28 off the clock.

It was the type of execution veteran quarterbacks provide.

Kaepernick not only did well in his tough road test, but he handed Brees his first regular season loss to the 49ers after winning his first five starts against San Francisco.

The last time the 49ers beat the Saints, Alex Smith led the 49ers in a 36-32 playoff win. Smith, who suffered a concussion on Nov. 11, was cleared for contact Sunday morning, but did not start.

After the game, Harbaugh refrained from naming Kaepernick the starter going forward. He also said he didn’t want to rush Smith back on the field after feeling concussion symptoms eight days after the initial injury.

“We’ll address that at a later time,” the 49ers coach said. “We’ll look at the game and make the best decision for the team going forward.”

Kaepernick and the 49ers got on the board first when the athletic quarterback called his own number on a 7-yard touchdown run. It finished off a four-play scoring drive that saw Mario Manningham picked up a pair of first downs on the drive with gains of 40 and 12 on the opening possession.

After the game, Manningham didn’t realize it was Kaepernick’s second career start.

“This is his second career start?” asked the 49ers leading pass-catcher on the day with five receptions for 69 yards. “He’s been playing like he’s been in there forever.”

The early score was Kaepernick’s fourth rushing touchdown of the year, putting him second on the team behind Gore’s five scores on the season.

The Saints responded to the opening score with a few big passing plays of their own, including a 33-yard strike from Brees to Joe Morgan. Brees finished the response with a 6-yard touchdown pass to tight end Daniel Thomas, giving the Saints quarterback his 54th consecutive game with a touchdown pass. More importantly, the 10-play drive tied the game at 7.

After the team’s traded punts, the first turnover of the game happened when Ted Ginn Jr. muffed a punt midway through the second quarter. New Orleans recovered at San Francisco’s 11-yard line. It was Ginn’s first lost fumble since 2010.

Ginn Jr. was dealing with hand and wrist issues, according to Harbaugh, and was replaced by Kyle Williams in the return game. Williams, however, left the game with a knee injury and underwent x-rays after the game. So did, Kendall Hunter, who was also hurt on the same offensive play as Williams in the second half.

Ginn Jr.’s miscue led to Saints points and their first and only lead of the game.

Two plays after the fumble, Brees hit Marques Colston for a 10-yard score to give the Saints a 14-7 advantage midway through the second quarter.

Four, first-half penalties were drive killers for the 49ers. Holding calls negated long passing plays, too.

The 49ers committed the game’s second turnover on a two-minute drive to close out the first half. Kaepernick’s deep sideline corner pass was intercepted by Saints cornerback Patrick Robinson, who sagged off his zone responsibility to make the interception.

Robinson’s takeaway was just the first of many interceptions on Sunday.

In a stunning turn of events, Ahmad Brooks intercepted Brees late in the second quarter and returned it 50 yards untouched for his first touchdown of his career. The outside linebacker dropped into coverage instead of rushing and was able to pick off a pass intended for Jimmy Graham. Brooks ran free down the Saints sideline for the big score with 22 seconds left in the half.

“He looked like he was shot out of a cannon when he got the ball,” Harbaugh remarked.

Fellow outside linebacker Aldon Smith, who recorded 1.5 sacks on the day, joked that he was envious of the big play.

“I’m actually a little jealous,” Aldon Smith said. “That was a joke… jealous, like LOL.”

With the game tied at 14, San Francisco came out the gates with a six-play, 80-yard scoring drive that saw Gore catch a 6-yard touchdown pass. Delanie Walker’s 45-yard reception and Hunter’s 21-yard run set up the go-ahead score putting the 49ers up 21-14.

San Francisco’s defense continued the onslaught.

Donte Whitner got in on the act with a 42-yard interception return for a touchdown following Justin Smith’s first solo sack of the year and first sack of the game.

Whitner’s first interception of the year put the 49ers up 28-14. The defense went on to record four more sacks of Brees when the Saints were in comeback mode for most of the second half.

“I was in the right place at the right time,” said Whitner, who credited teammate Dashon Goldson for helping to knock the ball up in the air for him to make a play. “I saw the ball tip up and I made sure I caught it.”

The last time the 49ers had two defensive touchdowns in a game, it was on Oct. 4, 2009 when Patrick Willis returned an interception and Ray McDonald returned a fumble recovery against the St. Louis Rams.

After San Francisco’s second defensive touchdown, New Orleans responded with a 43-yard pass to Lance Moore. A defensive holding penalty gave New Orleans a first down plays later. Brees then threw his third touchdown of the game to fullback Jed Collins to cut into San Francisco’s lead.

Kaepernick, however, was unfazed by the situation and delivered a key scoring drive, the 16-play possession that led to Akers’ made field goal.

That drive, followed by the eight power runs to kill the clock was all that was needed for a hard-fought win.

“Really proud of our guys for finishing the way that they did,” Harbaugh said.

“I really hope everyone focuses on the game and not the quarterbacks.”

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