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."
What the 49ers said
"I thought Colin played very well. He was very accurate. He was fighting just like everybody. He was very aggressive and made some big-time throws. He made a big-time play on the interception to get the ball back for us." -- Coach Jim Harbaugh.
What the Saints said
"We're going to play bigger games than this -- it's just beating a good football team. We are going to see a lot of good football teams here down the stretch. We're respectful. (The 49ers) were the best in the conference a year ago, and they're a team that is tough and does a lot of things well. I thought we won the line of scrimmage." -- Coach Sean Payton.
What we learned about the 49ers
1. Colin Kaepernick hung tough and showed grit in chasing down CB Corey White following an interception that looked as though it was headed for a pick-6. White fumbled the ball inside the 49ers' 5-yard line, and Kaepernick was able to get in a shove for good measure. But the 49ers have to find more offense, and soon. Kaepernick threw for only 127 yards the entire game -- Saints QB Drew Brees threw for 144 in the fourth quarter. The 49ers had just one first down in the fourth quarter. "We've got to move the chains a little better and sustain drives," said 49ers OT Joe Staley. "In the fourth quarter, we've got to do better. We knew they were going to do a lot of blitzing. They were overloading the side we were trying to run to. We've got to identify what the problems are and get those corrected."
2. This is the kind of loss that can suck the life out of a team's season. In losing their second consecutive game to fall to 6-4, the 49ers obviously were upset by the personal-foul call against LB Ahmad Brooks for what referee Tony Corrente thought was a high hit on Drew Brees. The defense played aggressive, 49er-style football, and it should have been good enough to win. But it wasn't. "They are trying to protect all of the players around the NFL as much as possible," Brooks said. "On the defensive line, sometimes we still get chopped by the offensive linemen ... and they don't do anything about it. If you are going to protect everybody, then they need to call the chop blocks, too."
What we learned about the Saints
1. This is not your grandfather's Saints' defense. It's hard to imagine that the Saints set an NFL record for defensive futility last season by allowing more than 7,000 yards of total offense (about 440 yards per game). New defensive coordinator Rob Ryan has the Saints defense humming, holding Dallas and San Francisco under 200 yards in the last two weeks. Going back three weeks, the Saints had forced punts on 16 consecutive third-down plays. "We said in the beginning of the year that we wanted (the game) to be put on us," said DE Cameron Jordan. "We want to be that defense that you can rely on and not the defense that is a liability." "We stopped the run and played hard-nosed football," said DE Junior Galette. "Everything came down to getting after the quarterback. We had the edge tonight."
2. Garrett Hartley steadied a very inconsistent season with field goals of 21, 42 and 31 yards on the Saints' last three possessions. Hartley knew he was under the microscope because Saints coach Sean Payton had brought in several kickers for a tryout earlier in the week. "I just take myself out of the element," Hartley said. "It was really funny that this happened the way that it did today because on the way to the stadium, I was on the phone to (former Saints kicker) John Carney. I was picking his brain a little bit. He told me the same thing he did in the NFC Championship Game (in January 2010). When it comes down to the wire, just take yourself out of it. You can't control anything else other than getting the opportunity. That's the way things unfolded. This one is just a little sweeter."