Rapid Reaction: 49ers 36, Saints 32

Thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 36-32 loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday at Candlestick Park.

What it means: You can’t defy conventional wisdom. In a game that will go down as a postseason classic, the Saints broke almost every rule and tradition. But they still lost in the end, as tight end Vernon Davis scored a touchdown with 9 seconds remaining. That capped a game that had four lead changes in the final 3 minutes, 53 seconds. The Saints came painfully close to proving they could win on the road, outdoors and in the postseason. They almost showed you can turn the ball over five times and still win. They also came close to proving wrong the old adage that defense wins championships. But there were no miracles this time.

What I liked: The game was as exciting as any you’ll ever see. It had drama and surprises from start to finish. San Francisco jumped out to a 17-0 lead at home, but Drew Brees rallied his team and put the Saints right back in the game. New Orleans’ defense played surprisingly well most of the day, right up until the end.

What I didn’t like: New Orleans’ defense folded when it mattered most. Alex Smith, who has never been confused with Tim Tebow, broke loose on a fourth-quarter touchdown run. Then, after Brees put the Saints ahead with a touchdown pass to Jimmy Graham, the defense collapsed again. Smith, who had been considered a bust for most of his career, brought back memories of Steve Young and Joe Montana with his game-winning drive. Davis abused strong safety Roman Harper most of the day, and he did it again when it mattered most.

What’s next: An offseason that’s starting sooner than expected for the Saints. There are some key personnel matters to deal with. Brees is no longer under contract. He undoubtedly will return to the Saints, but he’s going to take up a lot of salary-cap room. With Marques Colston, Carl Nicks and several other key players scheduled to become free agents, the Saints will have to make some big decisions. They also could have change on the coaching staff. Defensive coordinator Gregg Williams’ contract is expiring, and there is speculation he could be joining his old friend Jeff Fisher in St. Louis.