This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.
San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.
"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.
The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.
"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."
Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.
It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.
"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."
"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.
"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."
Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."
The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.
"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."
The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.
Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.
The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.
Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.
"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."
Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.
Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."
"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."