Drew Brees sat at the end of the bench, tucked in next to various Gatorade containers on the New Orleans Saints sideline, as the second half began.
As the New Orleans defense worked to stifle the San Francisco 49ers offense, the rest of his teammates dotted the sidelines, many standing in front of Brees.
No one approached him. They left him alone with his thoughts and visions of the two interceptions he threw during the first half, the second of which led to jeers and profanities cascading onto the field from various branches of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome stands.
After six plays, the defense forced the 49ers to punt. Brees picked up his helmet, marched onto the field and began leading a team that looked entirely different from the one on the stage before intermission. This new version of Brees, with the help of a stingy defense, battled back to take a late lead but ultimately fell in overtime after Brees was strip-sacked on the final play from scrimmage of the Saints’ 27-24 defeat.
After the game, Brees (28-of-47, 292 yards, three touchdowns, two interceptions), now part-owner of his team’s 4-5 record, said he was proud of how his team played in the second half but also took responsibility for the slow start and putting his team in a position where it had to bare its claws to get out of an early hole.
“I’m not happy about it. I can’t turn the ball over at the rate that I’m turning it over and certainly can’t turn it over in the situations that I’m turning it over,” said Brees, who has thrown 10 interceptions in nine games. “I probably deserved it. I would have booed myself.”
Outside of those two moments, there was little to boo in the second half. The Saints rallied to score 14 unanswered points, taking a 24-21 lead with 1:52 remaining. But the moments when boos rained down were the ones that defined the game.
The first moment that led to jeers came on the ensuing drive, when the Saints surrendered a 51-yard reception to San Francisco receiver Michael Crabtree. The play was taken right out of comments the players made this week about what not to do against mobile 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
Junior Galette, rushing from the defensive left side, got too wide in his approach to the backfield, which allowed Kaepernick to flush to the right sideline on the fourth-and-10 play. Once there, Kaepernick (14-of-32, 210 yards, one touchdown; four carries for 24 yards) was able to wait until one of his receivers, who were all running vertical routes, was able to break New Orleans’ Cover 2 zone defense. That’s exactly what Crabtree did: He managed to shed Corey White and got open down the field, where Kaepernick found him.
From start to finish, the play took 6.91 seconds; the Saints defensive backs said it’s difficult for them to cover their players for so long. Their head coach agreed.
“You have coverage areas, and those are good for 3 to 4 seconds, and then everyone scatters at that point to different spots — and that gets a little contorted,” coach Sean Payton said. “That’s hard; it’s hard when all of the sudden there are 7 or 8 seconds. It’s hard to keep your coverage integrity.”
The play moved the 49ers into New Orleans territory, where Phil Dawson connected on a 45-yard field goal to tie it. The Saints got the ball back with 44 seconds to go and nearly walked off with a victory — before they were halted by the sound of boos.
It only took a few seconds to get in position for what almost became the game-winning play. The Saints started at their 20-yard line and pushed to the San Francisco 47 with five ticks remaining after Brees connected on a pair of passes to Jimmy Graham and running back Travaris Cadet. With the clock winding down, Brees managed to connect with Graham (10 catches, 76 yards, two touchdowns), who was covered by three men in the end zone.
But the officials determined that Graham had pushed cornerback Perrish Cox, who was in front of Graham, to the ground to get open. After the game, the tight end said he disagreed with the call and that Cox flopped to draw a flag. The crowd, naturally, sided with Graham, but replays showed the tight end put both of his hands on Cox.
“I put literally two fingers on somebody, and they make that kind of call,” Graham said. “That’s why I left basketball — so I could stop getting penalized for hitting people.”
The call ended regulation and forced overtime, where the Saints and 49ers traded punts to start the extra period. New Orleans started at its 9-yard line on its second possession and pushed to the 15 before Brees was strip-sacked by linebacker Ahmad Brooks.
The quarterback, facing second-and-15, was attempting to check down to Cadet, who tripped over a linebacker and was not where he was supposed to be as Brees looked to get rid of the ball. With his target out of sight, Brees reloaded and looked for a different option. As he did so, Brooks hit him from behind to knock the ball loose.
The 49ers hit the winning field goal on the next play.
“With your route concepts, you have backs in different locations,” Brees said. “You know where he’s going to be according to the coverage. That’s where I was going, but I had to pull back because he was on the ground.”
But it was the early boos that made the later moments matter. If not for a slow start, the pass to Crabtree, the missed Hail Mary to Graham and the late strip-sack might not have mattered or even occurred. These are the moments that likely were running through Brees’ mind as he sat on the bench, waiting to rewrite the second act.
It was his decision-making on the third play of the game that led to an Antoine Bethea interception on a pass thrown into a too-tight window for receiver Marques Colston and yielded seven points for the 49ers. But it was the second one, which came on the heels of a Tyrunn Walker strip-sack that got New Orleans the ball back with 1:13 remaining in the second quarter, down 21-10, that will haunt the quarterback.
After pushing to the San Francisco 22-yard line, Brees targeted Graham in the end zone despite three defensive players blanketing him. Cornerback Chris Culliver managed to jump the route for the interception, ensuring the score would hold going into the second half.
“If I had that back, I would have chucked it to the back for an incompletion,” Brees said. “Let’s try to get a little closer. If you get inside the 10, you have some seconds to spare. At least let’s get some points and momentum going into the second half.”
But even though they’ll dwell on how the game got away, the Saints felt positive about what happened on defense. That unit held the 49ers to 330 total yards, 205 of which came in the first half. And the offense found its rhythm and battled back.
No, it wasn’t good enough. But their coach decided to look at the positives and, when addressing his team after the game, he provided an uplifting message.
“If we play like we did in the second half,” Payton said, according to his players, “no one will be able to beat us.”
The problem Sunday was that the Saints didn’t find that level of play soon enough to turn a half into a whole.