That was especially the case for quarterback Drew Brees, who had some terrific throws and three of his costliest turnovers to date. But the offensive line was similarly up and down in both pass protection and run blocking. Brees was under pressure on 17 snaps, according to ESPN Stats & Information, which is well above his average of less than 10 per game.
There were also three dropped passes -- including an egregious drop by Marques Colston on a deep ball that could have changed the complexion of the game in the second quarter.
Here are the highs and lows after watching the tape:
The sack-fumble: Brees admittedly held the ball too long during the sack-fumble in overtime that set up San Francisco’s game-winning field goal. The deep receivers weren’t open, so Brees tried to wait for running back Travaris Cadet to get up off the turf (he and linebacker Chris Borland both fell when their legs got tangled).
Linebacker Ahmad Brooks beat left tackle Terron Armstead on a four-man rush to hit Brees from behind and strip the ball. Armstead didn’t get torched -- he made Brooks go wide -- but Brooks slipped off the initial block quickly to hit Brees sooner than he expected.
The interceptions: Brees’ second interception was the one that drew a shower of boos inside the Mercedes-Benz Superdome right before halftime, when Brees tried to throw to tight end Jimmy Graham in triple coverage and cornerback Chris Culliver easily jumped up from behind to undercut the throw. It’s hard to understand what Brees was thinking since he wasn’t under any pressure, and he admitted later he would have booed himself.
Brees also tried for a little too much on his first pick when he threw deeper into traffic for Colston on a third-and-8 play on the opening series. Brees tried to drop the ball into a tight spot about 25 yards away and slightly underthrew it. It’s possible the throw was also partially affected by pressure coming from 49ers defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who came around on a twist and got a good push against Saints right tackle Zach Strief.
One more underrated poor decision by Brees that should be noted was his incomplete pass toward Kenny Stills in traffic on third-and-1 in overtime. Not sure why Brees chose that throw when he was under zero pressure at the time.
Brees at his best: Brees had maybe his best play of the season in the third quarter when he sidestepped one blitzing linebacker, then spun out of a sure sack from blitzing safety Eric Reid and delivered an 11-yard TD strike to Graham on third-and-6. Brees barely even looked up before making the throw, knowing he had Graham in single coverage against the smaller Culliver. That’s why Brees tries for improbable plays so often -- because he knows he’s capable of them.
Brees’ 31-yard TD pass to Brandin Cooks in the second quarter was also a perfect strike 40 yards through the air (and included great protection from the line -- especially Strief). Brees’ 2-yard TD pass to Graham in the fourth quarter came against another smaller corner, Perrish Cox, just before pressure arrived from a six-man blitz.
Brees also delivered a 40-yard pass to Cooks on a third-and-12 play in the first quarter just as he was absorbing a big hit from 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith. (Cooks deserves great credit for leaping up to snag it.) And Brees had three other big-time throws on third and fourth down late in the game.
Plus, it should be noted that Brees’ Hail Mary pass to Graham was a perfect throw about 50 yards down the field, even though the touchdown was nullified by Graham’s push-off penalty (which was a tough call but probably the right one, as has been well-dissected this week).
Ingram stays strong: Running back Mark Ingram continued to impress -- especially during a stretch of three straight runs in the third quarter for 7, 9 and 11 yards. He spun out of two tackles on the first one. Then on the third one, he bounced off a pile and stiff-armed Bethea to turn a negative play into a big gain.
My favorite run call was the one in the middle, though -- a draw play out of a passing formation on third-and-3. Ingram had a big hole, thanks in large part to guard Ben Grubbs, who did a great job picking up Borland, who was a tackling machine on Sunday.
Line issues: The line did a great job on many of the above highlights, but I feel like I jotted down more negative moments than any other game this season. Grubbs had a rough time with Smith, especially in run blocking. Armstead and guard Jahri Evans gave up at least two costly pressures each. Strief, center Jonathan Goodwin, tight end Josh Hill, receiver Nick Toon and fullback Erik Lorig had at least one bad beat each on passes or runs.
The best block of the day goes to Cadet, whose last-second blitz pickup on an incomplete pass in the third quarter saved Brees from taking a hellacious shot.
Dropping the ball: Colston continued his season-long issue with dropped passes. He dropped a perfectly placed, over-the-shoulder pass that was right in his hands about 30 yards down the field on a third-and-4 play in the second quarter. Stills and Graham each had a drop as well.