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Here we go again!

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By Jeremy R. Johnson

The New Orleans Saints found themselves in an all too familiar place against the 49ers; leading an opponent in the final minutes of a contest, only to lose in gut wrenching fashion. For a team who started the season off slowly, only to climb back into the national spotlight by having dominating performances against the Packers and Panthers, this loss is a setback. The Saints held a slim lead in the NFC South, one that got slimmer by the week, especially with losses like the one against the 49ers.

New Orleans has one of the most intimidating stadiums for opponents to play in all of football, but not for a 49er team who almost beat the Saints last year in the Dome were it  not for an extremely controversial roughing the passer call on Ahmad Brooks. San Francisco were losers of two straight coming into the contest with the Saints, and in danger of falling out of the playoff race. Both teams had identical 4-4 records, looking to get above .500 on the season. The NFC West division boasts the league leading 8-1 Arizona Cardinals and the defending Super-Bowl champion Seahawks at 6-3, so falling to 4-5 for the 49er’s was not an option, and it showed early.

The San Francisco 49er’s came into the Mercedes-Benz Superdome like the desperate team they were, forcing an early Drew Brees interception on the Saints’ first offensive series, and racing out to an early 14 to nothing lead.

New Orleans eventually settled in late in the first quarter, scoring a field-goal to cut the deficit to 14-3 by the end of the quarter.

The second quarter was a much tighter affair, with both teams scoring on passing plays. The Saints scored on a 31-yard passing play to rookie standout receiver Brandin Cooks on a beautifully thrown ball by Brees. San Francisco’s scoring play was the result of a 15-yard pass from Kaepernick to Boldin to make the score 21-10 going into the second half.

San Francisco has a physical rushing defense, fifth best in the NFL, but no one told Mark Ingram, who was on a tear leading into the game, punishing opposing defenses as games wear on. This 49er game was no exception, as Ingram for the third straight week eclipsed the century mark. His physical running brought balance to the offense in the second half, enabling the team to close the gap on a miraculous Brees to Graham touchdown strike.

Brees was being pressured up the middle of the field by a 49er blitz, but somehow managed to step into the pocket to avoid one defender, before spinning out of the grasp of another, only to keep his eyes downfield and fire a touchdown strike to Graham. This score closed the gap to 21-17, of what was quickly becoming a highly entertaining NFC matchup.

Without their best player Keenan Lewis after he suffered a knee injury, the Saints were able to force 49er three and outs, and put the ball in the hands of their offense. The Saints took their first lead of the game late in the fourth quarter on another Brees to Graham connection, making the score 24-21 Saints with 1:52 seconds remaining in regulation.

The Saints defense had held the 49ers to one second half touchdown, after giving up two in the first quarter, but couldn’t come through when it counted the most. On fourth and ten with San Fran needing a first down to stay alive, the defense allowed Kaepernick to escape the pocket to his right side and fire a 51-yard rocket across the field to a wide open Michael Crabtree for 54 yards. This play set-up the game tying field-goal and changed the momentum for the rest of the afternoon.

On the Saints next offensive series with four seconds remaining in regulation, Brees heaved up a Hail Mary pass, right into the arms of Jimmy Graham for the game-winning touchdown. Or so we all thought, the play was nullified for offensive pass interference, and we headed to overtime.

How the game ended was a microcosm of the Saints season, Drew Brees was forced to hold on to the ball a second too long, and was strip-sacked by non-other than Ahmad Brooks. The ball was recovered by San Francisco, who quickly kicked the game-winning field goal, making the final tally 27-24 in favor of the road team. Brooks must have felt vindicated after being the goat last year in a close loss to the Saints, but that doesn’t change the fact that the Saints implode in close games this season.

Brees has become a turnover machine in recent years, and his decision making can certainly be questioned more this season. Just as he has the ability to keep us in contest, he can be directly attributed to taking us out of them. The defense, even though it has improved throughout this year, it is not the unit it was last year that actually won games for the Saints. This coupled with a quarterback that has thrown at least one interception in almost every game this season is a recipe for disaster. The Saints will probably limp into the playoff picture by virtue of a terrible division, but I can’t see them being more than a stepping stone for a better NFC playoff opponent.

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