NFL Nation: 2013 Week 11 SF at NO

OWINGS MILLS, Md. -- In stark contrast to Ray Rice's awkward news conference in May, the Baltimore Ravens running back showed Thursday that he finally understood the weight of his actions from the alleged altercation with his then-fiancée in February.

He delivered the correct message, one the NFL failed to do last week with the two-game suspension, by not only apologizing to his wife, Janay Palmer, but also expressing a desire to become an advocate for domestic-violence causes.

Rice was compelling in his contrition, calling it the biggest mistake of his life. He stood in front of the microphone alone, without his wife standing by his side, and took full responsibility for the incident. Perhaps more importantly, Rice actually said the words "domestic violence," which weren't heard in his statement two months ago.

"My actions were inexcusable," Rice said. "That's something I have to live with the rest of my life."

Before anyone pats Rice on the back, this is what he should have said the first time when he broke his silence in May. Instead, Rice nervously fumbled through notes on his phone and apologized to team officials and his sponsors. That debacle of a news conference came across as damage control to his image.

His 17-minute news conference Thursday hit the right tones. He apologized to all women affected by domestic violence. He accepted the blame for losing the respect of fans. Rice came across as genuinely sorry.

"I let my wife down, I let my daughter down, I let my wife's parents down, I let the whole Baltimore community down," Rice said.

Rice's biggest misstep was not talking about what happened in the elevator. He was asked twice about it and declined to answer both times. His stance against domestic violence would have resonated stronger if he had explained his transgressions.

"I'll be honest: Like I said, I own my actions," Rice said. "I just don't want to keep reliving the incident. It doesn't bring any good to me. I'm just trying to move forward from it. I don't condone it. I take full responsibility for my actions. What happened that night is something that I'm going to pay for the rest of my life."

The only way Rice can move forward from this incident and show he's truly sincere is through his actions. It's not by his words. It's not by a hefty donation, which is merely a gesture. It's by proving this will remain a "one-time incident" and by supporting domestic-violence causes.

Thursday represented a small step forward for Rice. But it was an important one.
NEW ORLEANS -- Marques Colston said he was aware he became the New Orleans Saints' all-time leader in receiving yards when he caught his first pass Sunday -- a 14-yarder in the third quarter. But he said at that point in the game, the Saints had more important things to worry about. Like coming from behind to beat the San Francisco 49ers, 23-20.

And true to form, Colston helped them do that. He caught four more passes for 66 yards in the fourth quarter -- including a 20-yard catch with 50 seconds remaining to help set up the game-winning field goal.

“It’s obviously an awesome feeling, but it’s one that I’ll kind of wait until the offseason to reflect on. We’ve still got a lot of football left to play this year,” said Colston, who broke Eric Martin's franchise records for receiving yards and yards from scrimmage.

Colston now has 7,923 receiving yards and 7,930 yards from scrimmage in eight NFL seasons. He also holds the franchise records for receptions (571) and total touchdowns scored (60).

“It’s awesome,” said Saints quarterback Drew Brees, who has thrown all 60 of those touchdown passes to Colston -- the seventh most prolific duo in NFL history. “I thought about this today; I think it is very cool that we have a Ring of Honor now. We had the first three members inducted last week: Archie Manning, Rickey Jackson and Willie Roaf. I was looking up there at those names and I couldn’t help but think of the guys on this team that will be up there. Marques Colston is one of those guys. I’m fortunate to have played with him the last eight years. Hopefully we have quite a few more together.”

NEW ORLEANS -- You thought the New Orleans Saints proved how dangerous they were last week, when they played a nearly perfect game in a blowout victory over the Dallas Cowboys?

Well, the Saints took it up another notch on Sunday with a scrappy, sometimes-ugly 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.

This was the performance that truly showed the Saints' mettle as Super Bowl contenders.

San Francisco was the team that had given the Saints fits in each of the past two years. This was the style of game New Orleans hadn't been able to win consistently enough, including two weeks ago in a sloppy loss to the New York Jets. And it's the style of game they'll have to face again, with looming dates on the road against the NFC-leading Seattle Seahawks in Week 13 and two games against the NFC South rival Carolina Panthers.

"This is the biggest win up to date, I think, at the start of my career," said fourth-year Saints outside linebacker Junior Galette, who highlighted another outstanding performance by New Orleans' defense with a sack with 2:01 remaining.

The Saints stood toe to toe with the physical 49ers on Sunday. They absorbed a few big shots (most of them self-inflicted). And they rallied from a six-point deficit in the fourth quarter for their biggest win of the season to date.

"This game means more, the way that we won it," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said when asked which of the past two victories was more rewarding. "These are the ones that just sharpen you, just build confidence."

Not that the Saints needed a confidence boost.

It was especially clear from talking to players after Sunday's game that they had expected to win this game. That belief never wavered, even after three ugly turnovers in the first 33 minutes. The attitude was reminiscent, on a slightly smaller scale, of the confident approach the Saints took into Super Bowl XLIV, and the way they didn't waver after trailing 10-0 in that game.

"We were ready for this team," Saints running back Pierre Thomas said Sunday. "Nobody on this team was scared, none of the coaches, nobody on that sideline was scared."

"We knew we had to just keep chipping away, chipping away, chipping away at it, and eventually things would go our way," guard Jahri Evans said.

"That game had a little bit of an odd feeling to it, in that I felt like the offense was working efficiently, the defense was playing great, and yet we're losing," Saints offensive tackle Zach Strief said. "But Coach [Sean] Payton talked all week about kind of pounding away at the rock, kind of wearing someone down."

Players said Payton remained encouraging on the sideline, saying things like, "Let's stay in this," "Let's deal with this adversity" and "Body language."

The Saints' offense and defense both played well, especially in the areas they had preached about all week: stopping the run, staying balanced with their own rushing game and protecting Brees against a punishing defense.

[+] EnlargeAhmad Brooks and Drew Brees
John David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsThis one wasn't easy. Just ask Drew Brees, who was leveled by an Ahmad Brooks clothesline.
The defense was downright dominant, holding San Francisco to 196 yards and notching three sacks. Payton even credited his trust in the defense for an ill-fated decision to go for it on fourth-and-4 early in the third quarter.

"The defense has been playing unbelievable. Each week we gain more and more respect for them," Saints fullback Jed Collins said. "They just keep proving they're not only here to benefit the offense, but they're here to win games."

The Saints, however, dug themselves into a hole with three turnovers: a muffed punt return by Lance Moore that set the 49ers up for an easy touchdown; an interception return that was fumbled through the back of the end zone by cornerback Corey White; and an interception from Brees that set up another easy score for San Francisco.

Eventually, the Saints came up with a game-tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley with 2:06 remaining, a three-and-out by the defense and a game-winning 31-yard field goal by Hartley as time expired.

The rally included a lucky break, when Brees' fumble with 3:18 remaining was nullified by a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks for clotheslining him on the sack. But there were enough twists and turns and close calls that could have gone either way in this game that the Saints certainly didn't feel like they stole one.

Payton didn't even bother harping on the little things the team did wrong that "could get them beat down the road," as he did in previous games against lesser opponents.

"I just finished telling the guys I'm proud of them, and I thought we fought through some tough breaks," Payton said. "I thought we did all the things we talked about to win this game. … And I just thought they hung in there and deserved to win that game."

Speaking of overcoming adversity, Hartley entered the game on the hot seat after having missed four of his previous six field-goal attempts. But true to his history, he came through in the clutch.

Hartley could have been speaking on behalf of the entire team in his postgame comments when he said, "I would definitely say it tested me. But it was a time to show everyone how thick my skin is."

"We're just on a great level right now," Thomas added. "We have a great attitude. And we're seeing what type of team we can be. And as long as we keep fighting and keep doing what we're doing in practice, we're gonna be a tough out."
NEW ORLEANS -- As if New Orleans Saints' kicker Garrett Hartley didn’t have enough pressure on him already heading into Sunday’s game, there he was, facing the game-tying and game-winning field goal attempts in the final 2:06.

And true to his history, Hartley delivered in the clutch, drilling a 42-yarder and a 31-yarder to seal New Orleans’ 23-20 victory against the San Francisco 49ers.

“I would definitely say (this past week) tested me,” admitted Hartley, who had missed four of his past six field goals, prompting the Saints to bring in several kickers for workouts this past week to update their emergency list. “And it was time to show everyone, I guess, how thick my skin is.”

Hartley said he would have been just as happy if the Saints had won on a safety -- which nearly happened with 1:56 remaining. But he admitted it was funny the way things worked out, that he got to prove himself in such a big moment after such a high-profile slump.

It was similar to the way things worked out in 2009, when Hartley was slumping late in the regular season before making the game-winning kick in the NFC Championship Game and three big kicks in the Super Bowl.

“It was really funny that this happened the way it did today, because on the way to the stadium I was actually on the phone with John Carney, just kind of picking his brain a little bit,” Hartley said of the former Saints kicker, who became his mentor. “And the same thing he told me in the NFC (Championship) Game, when it’s coming down to the wire, you just take yourself out of it. You can’t control anything else other than if you’re given the opportunity. And that’s just the way things unfolded, and this one definitely is a little bit sweeter than most.”

Teammates were happy for Hartley, but they insisted they weren’t surprised.

In just six NFL seasons, Hartley has been through more ups and downs than most veteran kickers. He’s had a four-game suspension because of a banned stimulant, a performance-based benching and an entire season lost to a hip injury. Each time, he has bounced back.

“I told him that we believe in you and that you are our guy. We all did,” saints quarterback Drew Brees said of the support throughout the week. “Garrett has had his ups and downs throughout his career, but he has made a lot of big kicks for us. I think that is just the life of a kicker.”

Kudos to Saints coach Sean Payton for feeling the same way. Payton insisted this past week, that he remained confident in Hartley based on his history. And he didn't have an itchy trigger finger, like he did with some kickers and punters earlier in his tenure.

That faith paid off in a big way Sunday.
Jim HarbaughJohn David Mercer/USA TODAY SportsAfter riding a five-game win streak to a 6-2 record, Jim Harbaugh's 49ers have dropped two close games in a row.
NEW ORLEANS -- If the San Francisco 49ers are going back to the Super Bowl, they will have to win three playoff games on the road.

That was the situation going into Sunday’s game at New Orleans and it remained that way after the 49ers lost their second straight playoff-like game.

There’s no doubt the 49ers were a discouraged, emotionally spent bunch as they prepared for a long, unpleasant flight home. San Francisco tamed the great New Orleans offense in its own habitat, but still saw a winnable game turn into a 23-20 defeat when the Saints kicked a short field goal as time expired. New Orleans scored three field goals in the final 7:50 to take the victory away from the 49ers, who made two crucial 15-yard penalties to assist the Saints in the final six points.

Last week the 49ers lost, 10-9, at home to Carolina in another game they could have easily won with the right break or key play.

The result? San Francisco staggering into the second half of the season after finishing the first half as one of the hottest teams in the NFL. After starting 1-2, the 49ers ripped off five straight blowout wins. Suddenly, they are 6-4 and find themselves in a fight for the last playoff spot.

San Francisco can forget about winning the NFC West. Seattle improved to 10-1 on Sunday and the 49ers trail the Seahawks by 3 ½ games. The race is over. If the 49ers are getting back to the playoffs it will be as one of two wild-card entries.

And there’s competition for the spots. Carolina is 6-3 heading into a Monday night game against New England and owns the tiebreaker over the 49ers. Chicago and Detroit are tied for first place in the NFC North at 6-4. Arizona is also 6-4.

Because of the turn of events, there is certainly pressure the 49ers didn’t feel two weeks ago during their bye week. At 6-2, they looked like a postseason shoo-in. But after losses to two playoff-quality teams, the 49ers are no less of a contender.

“At the end of the day, it’s just one loss,” 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. “We’ve got six weeks to play for. We know the ultimate goal is to win as many games as you can and get into the playoffs.”

In my opinion, this is still a playoff team. Losses to the Panthers and the Saints didn’t change my mind. The 49ers look worthy of the postseason.

The good news for San Francisco is the schedule eases up. The 49ers play at Washington on "Monday Night Football" in Week 12 and then come home to host St. Louis before playing Seattle. The only other team with a winning record remaining on San Francisco’s schedule is Arizona on the road in Week 17.

Thus, the 49ers are still in good shape. Yes, observers will talk about how they can’t beat a good team. San Francisco is now 2-4 against teams with winning records and 4-0 against teams with losing records.

There’s no doubt the 49ers have some areas to fix to be able to win tight games down the stretch. A lack of discipline bit San Francisco late as the Saints converted two field goals in the final 2:06 to complete a comeback after the 49ers took a 20-14 lead in the fourth quarter.

There was a controversial moment late. The 49ers appeared to get the ball on a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul for a hit to Drew Brees' neck that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Brees' shoulder more than the neck. New Orleans ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

Brooks and the 49ers were not happy with the call. Brees, on the other hand, said he fully expected it to be a penalty because he said he was hit in the neck.

After the 49ers went three-and-out on the ensuing series -- punctuated by quarterback Colin Kaepernick running out of bounds to stop the clock on third down, giving the Saints more time on their final drive -- San Francisco special-teams ace Kassim Osgood blew into New Orleans punt returner Darren Sproles, who had called for a fair catch, at the Saints’ 25. Osgood was called for a 15-yard penalty with 1:48 to go. It gave the Saints good field position and led to the winning field goal.

Brees doesn’t need much help. Giving him two 15-yard penalties with the game on the line is no way to live.

But this loss wasn’t the fault of the 49ers’ defense. It held the Saints’ offense to two touchdowns. It did enough to win, just like against Carolina.

Last week’s loss was squarely on the 49ers’ offense, which managed just three field goals against Carolina after scoring 31 points or more per game during San Francisco's five-game winning streak. On Sunday, the 49ers’ offense started slowly again. It had 18 yards in the first quarter (it had 45 yards in the second half last week) and the 49ers didn’t convert a first down until early in the second quarter. The unit did pick up, though, and kept pace with the Saints.

Still, Kaepernick struggled at times. He was 1-for-7 on passes of 15 yards or more. On the final drive, the 49ers had little spark.

“We made it difficult on ourselves at times,” Kaepernick said. “We didn’t execute like we should have.”

Kaepernick and the offense need some fine-tuning down the stretch. But the truth is, this isn’t a team in a deep-rooted funk. It has had some misfires at bad times against two good teams. But the season is far from out of the 49ers’ grasp. Coach Jim Harbaugh senses that.

"I thought they played their hearts out,” Harbaugh said of his team. “Keep fighting.”

If the 49ers pay attention to the details, they should get the opportunity to fight into the postseason.

Locker Room Buzz: New Orleans Saints

November, 17, 2013
NEW ORLEANS – Observed in the locker room after the New Orleans Saints23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers:

Rewarding win: After the Saints beat the 49ers for the first time in three years, some players admitted it mean a lot for them to prove they could win a physical matchup like this. Others insisted they treated it just like any other big game. But everyone agreed that the way this game played out – overcoming adversity to win in the final minutes – was even more rewarding than a game like last week’s 49-17 rout of Dallas, when they were nearly flawless. “This game means more,” quarterback Drew Brees said. “These are the ones that just sharpen you.”

Rewarding kicks: Saints kicker Garrett Hartley certainly admitted that his two field goals in the final 2:06 were more rewarding than most after the personal adversity he faced in recent weeks, missing four of his last six kicks. He said he had just been talking to mentor and former Saints kicker John Carney on the way to the game about blocking everything else out and doing his job.

Colston’s record: Naturally, Saints receiver Marques Colston didn’t overplay the significance of setting the franchise record for receiving yards and yards from scrimmage. He said he’ll probably take time to reflect on it after the season. “Obviously there were more important things going on at the time,” Colston said.

Greer’s injury: Saints coach Sean Payton said cornerback Jabari Greer’s knee injury looks serious, but added that the team was awaiting tests to get the final diagnosis.
NEW ORLEANS -- Observed in the locker room after the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Controversy: The 49ers appeared to get the ball after a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared Brooks hit Drew Brees' shoulder more than his neck, which was the call. The Saints ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

Of course it was a topic of conversation in the San Francisco locker room. Many 49ers thought the officials made the wrong call, but were not surprised because of the emphasis on safety to quarterbacks.

“That was the game, basically,” Brooks said. “At the last second, he ducked his head."

Iupati hurt: Standout guard Mike Iupati suffered a left knee injury and was taken to the locker room on a cart, where he later left walking on crutches. It has not been determined how severe the injury is, but Iupati has been dealing with nagging knee issues. Iupati would clearly be missed if he has to sit out for an extended period of time. Adam Snyder took his place.

Harbaugh doesn't relent: Yes, the 49ers have lost two in a row and are now 6-4 and in a fight for a wild-card spot. But coach Jim Harbaugh focused on the positives for a team that has lost the past two games by a combined four points. "I thought they played their hearts out. Keep fighting ... I thought they left it all on the field.”

Rapid Reaction: New Orleans Saints

November, 17, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the New Orleans Saints’ 23-20 victory over the San Francisco 49ers, which moved the Saints to 8-2 on the season.

What it means: It wasn't always pretty, but it was a huge win for the Saints. They rallied from a six-point deficit in the final minutes to finally get past a team that has caused them fits for three straight years. And it was a confidence-booster for a New Orleans team that is going to have to gut out some more wins like this down the stretch, with physical opponents such as the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers (twice) remaining on the schedule.

The Saints made things a lot harder on themselves with three inexcusable turnovers early. But every unit contributed in the rally, including embattled kicker Garrett Hartley, who nailed two clutch field goals in the final minutes. Quarterback Drew Brees and the Saints' defense were just as clutch.

Stock watch: What a turnaround for Hartley. He had missed four of his past six field goal attempts coming into the game, and the Saints even tried out a group of kickers during the week to update their “emergency list.” But true to Hartley’s history, he was clutch when it mattered most. He was 3-for-3 on the night, including a 42-yarder with 2:06 remaining and a 31-yarder as time expired.

Creative, effective "D": The Saints’ defense certainly did its part in the victory, holding San Francisco to a total of 196 yards and 81 rushing yards, with three sacks and a three-and-out in the final minutes. The Saints knew they had to stop the run -- and this time they did. Saints defensive coordinator Rob Ryan was as creative as ever, starting in a 3-5 formation, among several other quirks.

Up next: For the second year in a row, the Saints have to follow up a physical battle with the 49ers by playing four days later on a Thursday night at Atlanta. The good news this year is the Falcons are having a horrible season (now 2-8 and on a four-game losing streak). Still, the Saints can’t afford to play as sloppy as they did in last year’s Thursday night dud.

Rapid Reaction: San Francisco 49ers

November, 17, 2013

NEW ORLEANS -- A few thoughts on the San Francisco 49ers' 23-20 loss against the New Orleans Saints:

What it means: The 49ers lost their second straight heartbreaking game. Last week, they lost at home to Carolina by one point. The two losses come after the 49ers had a five-game win streak. San Francisco is now 6-4 and in a second-place tie with Arizona in the NFC West. Seattle is 10-1. The division race is over. The 49ers are still in the playoff hunt, but these losses will sting. Like last week, this is a game the 49ers easily could have won. San Francisco played at a high level in a defeat.

Controversial call: The 49ers appeared to get the ball after a turnover with about three minutes to go. But linebacker Ahmad Brooks was called for a personal foul that gave the Saints new life. It was a questionable call because it appeared that Brooks hit Drew Brees’ shoulder. The Saints ended the drive with a game-tying field goal with 2:06 to go.

Stock watch: 49ers receiver Anquan Boldin had his best game since Week 1 against Green Bay when he had 13 catches. Boldin finished with six catches for 56 yards Sunday. He converted on third downs three times on one second-half drive. It was a reminder of how important Boldin is to this offense and how much quarterback Colin Kaepernick needs help.

More injuries: The 49ers have been dealing with injuries all season and that trend didn’t change Sunday. Cornerback Tarell Brown (rib) and guard Mike Iupati (knee) were both carted off the field and were unable to return. No further information was immediately available. However, it appears Iupati’s injury could be more serious than Brown’s. He is a key part of the offensive line. He was replaced by Adam Snyder, who is capable. But Iupati’s loss would be felt it he misses extended time.

What’s next: The 49ers have another long road trip on tap. They play at Washington on Monday night. The Redskins are struggling at 3-7.