Saints their own worst enemy in defeat

January 15, 2012, 4:51 am
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SAN FRANCISCO -- The finality floated through the New Orleans locker room like a bad smell or, like a bad dream.Twice, the Saints' high-octane had put wooden stakes straight through the hearts of the 49ers. Late in the fourth quarter. And twice the 49ers pulled them out, licked them and threw them to the side."It's hard when you get that close and all of a sudden it slips away," said Saints coach Sean Payton. "It's difficult."49ers, 36. Saints, 32. But that only told part of the story.Because as the finality came to fruition for the Saints, it was especially hard to take for their record-setting quarterback. Consider: in 16 regular-season games, New Orleans lost five fumbles. Total. Against the 49ers, they lost three fumbles. And Drew Brees was picked off twice."The fact that we could turn the ball over five times and still have a chance to win is remarkable," said Brees, combing the ruins of the Saints' latest underachieving finish for something, anything positive to get him through the flight home."(The 49ers have) a big, tough physical defense and after you make a catch, they light you up."Indeed. But be sure of this -- the Saints were their own uncharacteristic worst enemy on a day in which they twice seemed to overcome their own ineptitude. Mind you, winning the turnover battle was seen as the only way the 49ers could compete with Brees, who threw for an NFL single season-record 5,476 yards this season.And the Saints obliged with four turnovers in the first half alone. And yet, New Orleans trailed by just three points at the half, 17-14."We were fortunate, honestly," Payton said.But it was who was lost for the game on the Saints' first turnover that hurt them most of all. Running back Pierre Thomas took a nasty hit to the head from Donte Whitner after catching a pass and lost the ball at the 49ers' 2-yard line.That it was on the Saints' first drive of the day only heightened the loss. And the lost opportunity to score first. Because if New Orleans cuts through the 49ers' vaunted defense like a hot knife through a fresh beignet on their first possession, we're looking at a totally different game.Yet while New Orleans is already one-dimensional, having little to no threat of a running game allowed the 49ers' front seven to simply pin back their ears and go.And stillBrees threw for 462 yards while completing 40 of 63 passes with four touchdowns and two interceptions.He hit Darren Sproles with a 44-yard catch-and-run touchdown that gave the Saints, who trailed 17-0 at one point, their first lead of the day at 24-23 with 4:02 to play."I think we got too excited," said Sproles, who caught a playoff-record 15 passes. "We didn't think that they could score like that, but they did. They proved us all wrong."Then, after Alex Smith answered with a 28-yard TD run, Brees found Jimmy Graham across the middle for a 66-yard score with 97 seconds to play. The ensuing two-point conversion put the Saints up 32-29."We have done it time and time again in close games," Graham said, "with just a little bit of time on the clock. You give Drew the ball late in the game like that, he is going to drive down the fieldunfortunately, it didn't get us the win."Not when Alex Smith engineered an 85-yard scoring drive, culminating with "The Grab" from Vernon Davis with nine seconds to play."We traded punches all day long," Brees said.The 49ers landed the last haymaker, though, and the Saints coughed the ball up enough to get knocked out.That whole finality thing?"You go from thinking about the NFC championship," Brees said, "and all of a sudden you're going home and there no more football until next year."