Saints lose grip on NFC's top seed after failing to hold off 49ers

NEW ORLEANS – The New Orleans Saints finally got the offensive outburst they’ve been waiting for. But they squandered it with their worst defensive performance of the season in a wild 48-46 track meet that nobody could have seen coming against the San Francisco 49ers’ No. 1-ranked defense.

The Saints (10-3) can still potentially wind up as the NFC’s No. 1 seed. But now they may need losses by the 49ers (11-2), Seattle Seahawks (10-2) and Green Bay Packers (10-3) to make it happen.

New Orleans definitively lost its grip on the NFC race right around the time that safety Marcus Williams was flagged for yanking on 49ers tight end George Kittle’s facemask at the end of a 39-yard catch on fourth-and-2 with 30 seconds remaining to set up San Francisco’s winning field goal.

But the Saints’ defense struggled to contain the 49ers all day. The 49ers picked on cornerback Eli Apple early while torching New Orleans’ pass defense. Then, they started gashing the Saints with the run. And San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan even threw in some trick plays, including a touchdown pass from receiver Emmanuel Sanders to running back Raheem Mostert. Costly penalties against Saints rookie safety CJ Gardner-Johnson added to their woes late in the game.

It was a disappointing performance for a Saints defense that had really been the strength of the team for much of the season, ranking eighth in the NFL in yards allowed coming into the game.

The Saints will now have to recover in time for a home date with the Indianapolis Colts on Monday Night Football next week.

Silver lining: If the Saints bring this offense with them into January, they’ll have better days to come. Drew Brees was just talking this week about how they still hadn’t had that dynamic breakout performance from the offense yet this year, but he felt like they were “ascending” and ready to peak at the right time. Well, they came out and scored TDs on their first four possessions and even finished strong with a go-ahead TD drive in the final minute as Brees finished with 349 passing yards, five TD passes and one TD run. But it wasn’t enough on this day.

Pivotal play: You really can’t afford turnovers in a track meet like this. So the timing obviously wasn’t ideal when the Saints lost their first offensive fumble of the entire season at their own 20-yard line early in the third quarter. Alvin Kamara coughed up the ball on a handoff for just the second lost fumble of his career. And the 49ers scored a touchdown two plays later.

Pivotal no-call: The Saints tried a gutsy fake punt on fourth-and-18 from the 49ers’ 45-yard line late in the third quarter. And it looked for a moment like they might draw a pass interference penalty on Taysom Hill’s deep pass to receiver Tre’Quan Smith. However, the officials explained that there is no rule against pass interference on outside receivers on punt formations. The referee even explained it twice over the loudspeaker to drive home the point over the raucous boos of the crowd.

Promising trend: It feels like it happened three weeks ago, but the Saints’ first two touchdowns came courtesy of tight end Jared Cook, who has really been emerging as a much-needed weapon for them with four TD catches over the past four games. Unfortunately, Cook left the game with a concussion after his second catch – a terrific 26-yard grab that he held onto despite being hit in the head. Ideally, Saints will get him back in plenty of time for their playoff run.