NEW ORLEANS, LA - NOVEMBER 17: Donte Whitner #31 of the San Francisco 49ers nearly picks off this reception intended for Jimmy Graham #80 of the New Orleans Saints at Mercedes-Benz Superdome on November 17, 2013 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
NEW ORLEANS – With six weeks remaining in the regular season, the Saints picked up a victory over the 49ers on Sunday that could have playoff seeding implications.
Garrett Hartley's 31-yard field goal as time expired gave New Orleans a 23-20 victory at the Superdome, where the 49ers’ Super Bowl run of last season ended with a loss to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.
The 49ers did not fashion a dynamic offense, by any means, on Sunday against the New Orleans Saints. But it was a significant upgrade over their performance in a 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers a week earlier.
The 49ers entered the game in second place in the NFC West with a 6-3 record, while the Saints held a lead in the NFC South over the Panthers with a 7-2 record.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s 17-yard scoring pass to a wide open Vernon Davis early in the third quarter game the 49ers a 17-14 lead. The play was set up by outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks’ interception of a Drew Brees pass. He returned the interception 22 yards to end the Saints’ opening possession of the second half.
The 49ers defense then stopped the Saints on downs to take over at the San Francisco 40-yard line. Aldon Smith got pressure on Brees to force a third-down throwaway. Then, linebacker Patrick Willis and safety Donte Whitner had coverage tight end Josh Hill on a fourth-and-4 incompletion.
The 49ers then put together a 13-play, 49-yard drive that chewed up 6 minutes, 12 seconds to bump their lead to 20-14 on Phil Dawson’s 29-yard field goal.
Despite being matched against a Saints defense that ranked among the lower-third in the NFL in run defense, the 49ers could not get their ground game going. Running back Frank Gore managed just 48 yards on 13 carries.
And while Kaepernick’s stat sheet was not flashy, it was a marked improvement over a week earlier when the 49ers had just 46 net yards passing.
Kaepernick completed 17 of 31 passes for 127 yards with two touchdowns and one interception.
Meanwhile, the 49ers’ defense managed to keep Drew Brees and the Saints’ explosive offense in check for most of the game.
Brees finished with 30 completions on 43 attempts for 305 yards with one touchdown and one interception.
Kaepernick avenges pick: Kaepernick tossed an interception in the second quarter. But instead of the play resulting in a turnover, it ended up being a mere loss of 16 yards.
On a play that originated at the 49ers’ 36-yard line, Kaepernick threw toward Mario Manningham on the right side. Cornerback Corey White jumped the route and made the interception. Then, he got to his feet and took off down the sideline.
Kaepernick was in pursuit from the middle of the field. White began to dive for the end zone, but he lost control of the ball near the goal line and the ball went out of the end zone for a touchback. The 49ers were awarded the ball at the 20-yard line due to the touchback.
The 49ers took advantage of the second chance and moved the ball down the field to set up Phil Dawson for a 55-yard field goal with 3:34 remaining in the first half to give the 49ers a short-lived 10-7 lead.
Questionable challenges: Coach Jim Harbaugh wasted both of the 49ers’ challenges in the first half on plays that replays immediately showed the team had no chance of winning.
The 49ers challenged a first-quarter play, claiming Brees was beyond the line of scrimmage on a 4-yard pass to Darren Sproles that produced a first down. Under NFL rules, Brees’ entire body must’ve been over the line of scrimmage for a penalty to be called. Replays shows that none of Brees’ body was over the line.
In the second quarter, the 49ers challenged a ruling of an incomplete pass to Jon Baldwin in the end zone. But Baldwin clearly did not retain possession all the way through the catch.
On the next play, Kaepernick threw an 11-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin for a 7-7 game.
Injury concerns: Cornerback Tarell Brown exited the game in the second quarter due to a ribs injury. Brown appeared to be inadvertently kneed in the back while making a goal line tackle. With Brown out of action, Tramaine Brock took over at cornerback with veteran Eric Wright filling the role as the 49ers’ No. 3 cornerback. Wright made his debut with the 49ers, who released Perrish Cox last week to open playing time for Wright.
Left guard Mike Iupati sustained a left knee injury in the third quarter and was immediately ruled out for the remainder of the game. Adam Snyder filled in for Iupati for the remainder of the game. Iupati was injured when Frank Gore rolled up on him on a run play.
Ups and downs: The 49ers’ kicking game had plenty of ups and downs in the first half, beginning with C.J. Spillman batting an Andy Lee punt back into the field of play, where Kassim Osgood downed it at the 3-yard line. (However, the Saints responded with a 97-yard touchdown drive.)
Spillman also hustled down on punt coverage and might have distracted Lance Moore, who muffed a punt that was recovered by Bubba Ventrone. Two plays later, the 49ers turned that takeaway into a touchdown.
But after the 49ers took a 10-7 on Phil Dawson’s 55-yard field goal, Dawson did not get enough distance for a touchback on the ensuing kickoff. Saints returnman Travaris Cadet returned the kickoff 82 yards to set up Jed Collins’ 1-yard touchdown run.
Active/inactive: Tight end Vernon Davis and safety Eric Reid were cleared to play in Sunday’s game after being sidelined a week earlier by concussions. Both players passed their impact tests – the final step in the NFL’s concussion protocol – on Friday and were back in the 49ers’ starting lineup against the Saints.
Tony Jerod-Eddie started at left defensive tackle in place of Ray McDonald, who was ruled out with a high ankle sprain. Tony Jerod-Eddie also split time with Dobbs.
Wide receiver Michael Crabtree was not moved up to the 49ers’ 53-man roster. He remains on the reserve/physically-unable-to-perform list as he returns from a torn right Achilles he sustained in May.
First-year tight end Derek Carrier made his NFL debut. Carrier was promoted to the 53-man roster due to Garrett Celek’s hamstring injury, which kept him out of action.