Let's start near the beginning -- on the 49ers' third offensive play. Quarterback Alex Smith lined up in the shotgun formation. It was third-and-5 from the San Francisco 15. The snap from center David Baas sailed past Smith into the end zone. Smith beat onrushing Saints defenders to the ball and batted it from the end zone for a safety.
The 49ers had ceded momentum early. Down 2-0, they punted and the Saints turned the short field into a quick touchdown drive. The score was 9-0 before the 49ers had even attempted a pass.
There would be many more decisive moments later in the game -- some good for the 49ers, others costly. But none of them might have mattered as much if the 49ers hadn't fallen into such an early deficit against a smart, experienced opponent.
"We hand them two points on the first series," Smith lamented. "Not to take away anything from them. They’re a world champion football team. But we did a lot of things to ourselves that put ourselves behind the ball, and when you play a team like that, it's going to make it tough."
Too tough, in this case.