NEW ORLEANS -- Quarterback Drew Brees led a furious fourth-quarter comeback and Garrett Hartley kicked a 31-yard, game-winning field goal as time expired to lift the New Orleans Saints to a 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers Sunday at the Superdome.
The Saints defense forced San Francisco to punt after the 49ers took over at their own 20 with 2:06 left. Brees got the ball at the Saints' 40 after Darren Sproles was tackled by Kassim Osgood following a fair catch of the punt, resulting in a 15-yard penalty against the 49ers.
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, and its record fell to 6-4.
A careless, third-down interception thrown by Brees - picked off in the right flat by linebacker Ahmad Brooks and returned 22 yards to the New Orleans 22 - set up the 49ers' go-ahead touchdown in the third quarter. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick connected for 17 yards to Vernon Davis for the score, putting San Francisco up 17-14.
After the Saints gambled unsuccessfully on fourth-and-4 from the San Francisco 40, the 49ers went 49 yards on 13 plays to set up Dawson for a 29-yard field goal to extend the lead to 20-14.
On the next series, Brees completed passes of 34 yards to Robert Meachem and 27 yards to Colston to get the ball to the 49ers' 6. But the 49er defense stiffened to force a 21-yard field goal by Hartley, and the 49ers still led 20-17 with 7:50 left.
On the 49ers' next possession, 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 a 42-yard field goal by Hartley to tie the game, 20-20, with 2:06 left.
The tying field goal came after yet another controversial sequence. Brees was sacked hard from the backside by Brooks - and fumbled - but the officials ruled that Brooks' right arm hit Brees too close to the head, drawing an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty that gave the Saints new life at the 49er 30.
The Saints defense, rejuvenated under defensive coordinator Rob Ryan, held the 49ers to just 18 yards on 11 plays and no first downs in the first quarter, forcing four consecutive punts.
The Saints took a 7-0 lead late in the first quarter on a masterful 97-yard, 11-play drive, with the payoff coming on Brees' 3-yard touchdown toss on a delay pattern to backup tight end Josh Hill.
On the fourth punt by Andy Lee -- one that was hit sky high with plenty of spin -- Saints reserve return man Lance Moore allowed the ball to bounce through his hands, and Bubba Valentine pounced on the ball for the 49ers at the Saints 11.
On first down, Kaepernick appeared to complete a scoring pass to wide receiver Jon Baldwin, but Baldwin failed to maintain control of the ball as he hit the ground. 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, who had already lost an earlier challenge, challenged the ruling, but referee Tony Corrente upheld the decision by field judge Gary Canaletto. The second unsuccessful challenge left the 49ers without a challenge for the rest of the game.
Kaepernick got the touchdown for real on the next play, going to the left side to hit Anquan Boldin with a back-shoulder throw against Corey White, tying the game at 7 with 10:16 left in the half.
White appeared to make up for allowing the score by cutting in front of Mario Manningham at the 49er 43-yard line for a diving interception. Since he was not touched, White bounced off the ground and headed for the end zone, with Kaepernick in hot pursuit. But White lost control of the ball at the 4, and the ball rolled through the end zone for a touchback.
Given the reprieve, the 49ers drove 43 yards in six plays -- the big play coming on Frank Gore's 24-yard burst down the left sidelines -- to set up Dawson's season-long 55-yard field goal, giving them a 10-7 lead.
On the ensuing kickoff, Travaris Cadet raced 82 yards to the San Francisco 21. 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: 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.