NEW ORLEANS -- If the San Francisco 49ers are going back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three playoff games on the road.
That was the situation going into Sunday’s game at New Orleans and it remained that way after the 49ers lost their second straight playoff-like game.
There’s no doubt the 49ers were a discouraged, emotionally spent bunch as they prepared for a long, unpleasant flight home. San Francisco tamed the great New Orleans offense in its own habitat, but still saw a winnable game turn into a 23-20 defeat when the Saints kicked a short field goal as time expired. New Orleans scored three field goals in the final 7:50 to take the victory away from the 49ers, who made two crucial 15-yard penalties to assist the Saints in the final six points.
Last week the 49ers lost, 10-9, at home to Carolina in another game they could have easily won with the right break or key play.
The result? San Francisco staggering into the second half of the season after finishing the first half as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. After starting 1-2, the 49ers ripped off five straight blowout wins. Suddenly, they are 6-4 and find themselves in a fight for the last playoff spot.
San Francisco can forget about winning the NFC West. Seattle improved to 10-1 on Sunday and the 49ers trail the Seahawks by 3 ½ games. The race is over. If the 49ers are getting back to the playoffs it will be as one of two wild-card entries.
And there’s competition for the spots. Carolina is 6-3 heading into a Monday night game against New England and owns the tiebreaker over the 49ers. Chicago and Detroit are tied for first place in the NFC North at 6-4. Arizona is also 6-4.
Because of the turn of events, there is certainly pressure the 49ers didn’t feel two weeks ago during their bye week. At 6-2, they looked like a postseason shoo-in. But after losses to two playoff-quality teams, the 49ers are no less of a contender.
“At the end of the day, it’s just one loss,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. “We’ve got six weeks to play for. We know the ultimate goal is to win as many games as you can and get into the playoffs.”
In my opinion, this is still a playoff team. Losses to the Panthers and the Saints didn’t change my mind. The 49ers look worthy of the postseason.
The good news for San Francisco is the schedule eases up. The 49ers play at Washington on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12 and then come home to host St. Louis before playing Seattle. The only other team with a winning record remaining on San Francisco’s schedule is Arizona on the road in Week 17.
Thus, the 49ers are still in good shape. Yes, observers will talk about how they can’t beat a good team. San Francisco is now 2-4 against teams with winning records and 4-0 against teams with losing records.
There’s no doubt the 49ers have some areas to fix to be able to win tight games down the stretch. A lack of discipline bit San Francisco late as the Saints converted two field goals in the final 2:06 to complete a comeback after the 49ers took a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter.
There was a controversial moment late. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than the neck. New Orleans ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.
Brooks and the 49ers were not happy with the call. Brees, on the other hand, said he fully expected it to be a penalty because he said he was hit in the neck.
After the 49ers went three-and-out on the ensuing series -- punctuated by quarterback Colin Kaepernick running out of bounds to stop the clock on third down, giving the Saints more time on their final drive -- San Francisco special-teams ace Kassim Osgood blew into New Orleans punt returner Darren Sproles, who had called for a fair catch, at the Saints’ 25. Osgood was called for a 15-yard penalty with 1:48 to go. It gave the Saints good field position and led to the winning field goal.
Brees doesn’t need much help. Giving him two 15-yard penalties with the game on the line is no way to live.
But this loss wasn’t the fault of the 49ers’ defense. It held the Saints’ offense to two touchdowns. It did enough to win, just like against Carolina.
Last week’s loss was squarely on the 49ers’ offense, which managed just three field goals against Carolina after scoring 31 points or more per game during San Francisco's five-game winning streak. On Sunday, the 49ers’ offense started slowly again. It had 18 yards in the first quarter (it had 45 yards in the second half last week) and the 49ers didn’t convert a first down until early in the second quarter. The unit did pick up, though, and kept pace with the Saints.
Still, Kaepernick struggled at times. He was 1-for-7 on passes of 15 yards or more. On the final drive, the 49ers had little spark.
“We made it difficult on ourselves at times,” Kaepernick said. “We didn’t execute like we should have.”
Kaepernick and the offense need some fine-tuning down the stretch. But the truth is, this isn’t a team in a deep-rooted funk. It has had some misfires at bad times against two good teams. But the season is far from out of the 49ers’ grasp. Coach Jim Harbaugh senses that.
"I thought they played their hearts out,” Harbaugh said of his team. “Keep fighting.”
If the 49ers pay attention to the details, they should get the opportunity to fight into the postseason.