SAN FRANCISCO -- These were Mike Singletary's San Francisco 49ers pushing the Super Bowl champions all over Candlestick Park, but ultimately tripping over themselves.
Singletary's 49ers were big, strong, tough, physical, resilient -- and just a little too ham-handed for their own good.
They showed they were well-led, but not necessarily well-coached. The difference between the two was the difference between a defining 49ers victory, possibly in a rout, and the 25-22 defeat San Francisco suffered when Garrett Hartley's 37-yard field goal barely cleared the crossbar for New Orleans as time expired.
Singletary knows but one way. He's a sledgehammer, which can be brutally effective, but winning football sometimes requires a scalpel, too. It's a game of precision, calculation and savvy, not just brute force, determination and impulse (as when Singletary, so eager to stomp out the Saints after halftime, opted to take the Candlestick wind at his back in the third quarter, even though New Orleans was getting the ball to start the half).
"We whupped their behind up and down the field," said running back Frank Gore, who did a lot of that whupping with 112 yards on 20 carries. "They couldn't stand up with us. We beat ourselves. We beat ourselves for the second week in a row. We have got to change."
Singletary wasn't claiming moral victory even though there was much to like about the poise and skill quarterback Alex Smith showed in leading the tying touchdown drive in the final two minutes. Singletary knew his team gave up a safety when it couldn't execute a shotgun snap, suffered two interceptions inside the New Orleans' 30-yard line, muffed a punt with the game on the line, lost a fumble inside the Saints' 10 and bungled substitutions on both sides of the ball.
"My mindset is when we stop defeating ourselves, when we stop putting the ball on the ground, when we stop doing things to hurt ourselves, we are going to be a good football team," Singletary said. "How good, that remains to be seen. That is my feeling after this game."
It's my feeling the 49ers will claim the NFC West title and possibly win a home playoff game against a flawed opponent. That will represent real progress for an organization that hasn't experienced a winning season since 2002. The 49ers might even find out Smith is the right quarterback, after all. Like never before, Smith showed up in the fourth quarter on a national stage -- scrambling for first downs, solving the blitz, commanding the offense at the line of scrimmage and inspiring confidence in his teammates.
"The guy is poised," right guard Adam Snyder said. "He has confidence in his game and I'm proud of him, real proud of him."
"Alex is a great quarterback," left tackle Joe Staley said.
"I thought he did a great job," tight end Vernon Davis said.
Smith played well because the 49ers were running the ball almost at will. They lined up the way they line up in Singletary's sweetest dreams, usually with two tight ends and often with two running backs backs. The Saints could not match up except for when they were picking off tipped passes or poking the ball free from 49ers tight end Delanie Walker at the New Orleans' 8. The 49ers finished this game with huge advantages in first downs (24-17), total yards (417-287) and average gain per offensive play (7.2 to 4.5).
And still they lost.
"I have a lot of emotions right now," Smith said. "Frustrated. In the end, it's a loss just like last week. Lose by one, lose by whatever, it doesn't matter. There are some better things to take away from it, but still killing ourselves, turnovers, especially today in the red zone. Three turnovers where we were in or on the fringe of the red zone. Walk away with field goals on all three of those and we put up 30 points today on a pretty good defense, let alone we hand them two points on the first series."
The 49ers spent the last week determined to eliminate communication problems that prevented Smith from receiving play calls in time. Those problems did not recur, but the 49ers still took a delay penalty after Davis failed to get into the huddle on time. They nearly took a penalty for having 12 defenders on the field when rookie linebacker NaVorro Bowman barely made it to the sideline before the ball was snapped.
"We're a smart football team," Snyder said. "Things happen. It's a game. We overcame a lot. Obviously, there are things we need to work on to get better and win games and I believe in us and I know everyone in this locker room believes in us."
This performance, though obviously flawed, marked progress from the 31-6 defeat San Francisco suffered at Seattle in Week 1. The 49ers are 0-2, but they're only one game out of the NFC West lead and they're the only team in the division that could have played the Saints so tough Monday night.
"We got a lot of respect for them," Saints coach Sean Payton said. "We just weren't going to turn the ball over. We were going to be smart."