NEW ORLEANS - No one has missed more field goals - six - in the NFL this season than New Orleans Saints place-kicker Garrett Hartley. It got so bad for Hartley that coach Sean Payton held a private casting call earlier in the week before deciding to stick with Hartley.
But when it counted Sunday, Hartley kicked three fourth-quarter field goals on the Saints' last three possessions, including the 31-yard game-winner as time expired, to lift the Saints to a 23-20 comeback victory over the San Francisco 49ers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
"There was a lot of white noise that we don't pay any attention to," Payton said when asked about Hartley's roller-coaster season. "You just have to keep grinding. I loved the way he responded. A few weeks ago it was the offensive line and then (Mark) Ingram, and this week it was Garrett."
The game had just about everything, including two turnovers on a single play (an interception by Saints cornerback Corey White that he fumbled through the end zone for a touchback) and a controversial, game-changing unsportsmanlike penalty against 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks for a blindside tackle on quarterback Drew Brees.
The penalty gave the Saints a first down and allowed Hartley to kick a game-tying 42-yard field goal with 2:06 left.
The 49ers were clinging to a 20-17 lead, when Brees faced a third-and-2 from the San Francisco 35. Brooks raced around right tackle Zach Strief and caught Brees with his right arm, corralling him near the neck and then sliding the arm near Brees' head.
Brooks' hit forced a Brees fumble, which the 49ers recovered, but referee Tony Corrente ruled Brooks had hit Brees too high. Five plays later, Hartley kicked the tying field goal. Less than four minutes earlier, Hartley had made a 21-yard chip shot to draw the Saints within 20-17.
"All I remember is getting clotheslined in the chin, and as I'm on the ground, I'm saying, 'That's got to be a flag,'" Brees said. "Someone came up to me and said, 'Don't worry. There's a flag.' It took a moment and I got ready to go."
Brooks said he was thoroughly frustrated at being called for a penalty on what he considered a clean hit.
"I mean, I'm going full speed and he is going full speed, and at the last second he ducked his shoulder," Brooks said. "I don't think I could have done anything differently. I could have tackled him lower, but I'm running around quick and coming around the corner, and I'm there to try to knock the ball out of his hands because I think he's going to throw the ball - but then he ducks his shoulder.
"It's very frustrating. The game could have gone in a totally different direction, and I'm mad because that was a big call in the game, and then we lost the game, and that's probably the reason why."
The 49ers, who turned three takeaways into 17 points, gained only 196 yards in total offense and picked up just 12 first downs. Their two touchdown drives came after turnovers set them up at the Saints' 11 (a muffed punt by Lance Moore in the second quarter) and the Saints' 22 (an interception of a Brees pass by Brooks in the right flat in the third quarter).
The 49ers' offensive futility -- which included quarterback Colin Kaepernick going 17-for-31 for just 127 yards and a long pass of 17 yards -- was particularly apparent on their final series.
With the game tied 20-20 with 2:06 left, reserve linebacker Keyunta Dawson knifed in to sack Kaepernick for a 9-yard loss. On second down, defensive end Cameron Jordan nearly forced a safety by hitting Kaepernick at the goal-line, and the 49er quarterback heaved a wild pass out of bounds. Kaepernick scrambled for 16 yards on third-and-19, but that forced another punt. With Brees, that was one punt too many.
"They caught us on the left side with a game, and myself and (guard) Adam (Snyder) have to do a better job passing it off," said 49ers tackle Joe Staley. "The negative plays hurt us."
The 49ers committed another huge penalty when wide receiver Kassim Osgood, the gunner on punt coverage, plowed into Saints' return man Darren Sproles as he was making a fair catch. That gave the Saints the gift of 15 yards to set them up at the New Orleans 40 with 1:41 left, ample time for Brees to work his late-game magic.
Brees completed passes of 20 yards to wide receiver Marques Colston and 12 yards to tight end Jimmy Graham to move the ball to the San Francisco 13, and Hartley connected on the game-winner with no time left.
The Saints improved to 8-2 and kept their home record spotless at 6-0. San Francisco dropped its second straight game, falling to 6-4.
Kaepernick connected for 17 yards to Vernon Davis early in the third quarter to put San Francisco up 17-14 and the 49ers increased the margin to 20-14 early in the fourth quarter on Phil Dawson's 29-yard field goal.
San Francisco still led 20-17 after Hartley's 21-yard field goal with 7:50 left.
On the 49ers' next possession, 49ers running back Frank Gore dropped a wide-open pass at the 49ers' 35-yard line that could have gone for 50 yards. That forced a punt, and Brees drove the Saints in position for the tying field goal.
Another decisive play was Travaris Cadet's 82-yard kickoff return to the San Francisco 21 just after the 49ers had taken a 10-7 lead on Dawson's season-long 55-yard field goal. Three plays later, fullback Jed Collins dove in from the 1 to put the Saints back on top 14-10 with 1:58 left in the half.
NOTES: The 8-2 Saints have a 11/2 game lead over Carolina in the NFC South. ... The Saints have held their last two opponents (Dallas and San Francisco) to fewer than 200 yards total offense, the first time that has happened since 2000. ... Former Saints defensive tackle La'Roi Glover was honored with induction into the Saints Hall of Fame at halftime. ... Saints CB Jabari Greer sustained an ugly injury to his left knee in the first quarter, coming down awkwardly on his leg after breaking up a pass to Jon Baldwin. ... The 49ers lost CB Tarell Brown with a rib injury late in the first half. ... San Francisco OG Mike Iupati left the Superdome on crutches with a large brace on his left knee.