SAN FRANCISCO -- For all the late turning points in The Game That Rationality Forgot, the first turning point should neither be forgotten nor minimized for one compelling reason.
Those who do will be cement-mixered by Donte Whitner.
Whitner leveled New Orleans running back Pierre Thomas at the 49ers two-yard-line to end the Saints first drive. But leveled only covers part of the impact of that hit.
Whitner also forced Thomas to fumble, allowing Patrick Willis to fall on the ball to end the possession, and drove Thomas from the game with a concussion that dramatically changed not only the start of the game but the way the Saints could attack the 49ers the rest of the afternoon.
Pierre does a lot of things well for us, a profoundly sour Sean Payton said in his postgame press conference. (Losing him) meant that those other guys (Darren Sproles and Chris Ivory) were going to have to pick up the workload. You saw Darrens snaps go way up, and you saw Chris get more snaps. Theres a number of things Pierre does well for us, and you hate to lose a good player like that.
But they did, and it changed the Saints offensive approach to a wholly one-dimensional one. They ended up throwing 63 times, they gained only 37 yards in 14 rushes, and the lost the ability to keep the 49ers linebackers honest.
Even at that, the 49ers still needed four turnover in addition to his, just to be able to build a lead they would lose twice before ultimately holding for good, and with such a thin margin, losing Thomas was a big a moment as there was in a game with maybe 20 of them.