NEW ORLEANS — On a day when the rest of the NFC gave the Saints’ playoff hopes a little better margin for error, an old archnemesis came to town and took it away.

The Forty-Freaking-Niners.

How many times during the Joe Montana-Steve Young Era (1980 -’99) did the Boys from the Bay stick a dagger into the heart of the Saints in the Superdome?

For those of you counting, 15 out of 20.

“Yeah, but usually we would lose it in the fourth quarter,” said ex-Saints quarterback Bobby Hebert, who experienced more than his share of those disappointing days in the ’Dome. “Everybody used to think the 49ers would beat you with their offense.

“But their defense was awesome, too.”

The 49ers defense this Sunday was pretty awesome, too. Especially those two pick-six returns against Drew Brees, that, along with a quick six by the San Francisco offense, turned a 14-7 Saints lead into a 28-14 deficit over a 4:49 span.

After that, the Saints were never quite out of it, in fact, reducing their deficit to 7 points.

But never did it seem like they were actually going to catch up.

At least it must have felt that way to the thousands of fans who decided to get an early start home while the game was still within reach.

They didn’t miss much, though.

After David Akers’ field goal with 7:53 left made it 31-21, the Saints never got past their 46.

So, where does that leave this now 5-6 team?

On paper, not so bad.

Seattle, Minnesota and Tampa Bay, the three teams all ahead of the Saints in the playoff chase all lost Sunday, so there was no ground lost.

And increasingly it’s looking like 9-7, not 10-6 will at least put a team in a tie for the final wild-card playoff berth where the tie-breakers will have to sort it out.

Plus, the Saints have played their best remaining foe. Would you take the Falcons over them right now?

Colin Kaepernick confirmed San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh’s faith that he was ready to take over as the 49ers quarterback (much like Montana succeeding Steve DeBerg late in the 1979 season confirmed Bill Walsh’s judgment, and Young replacing Montana in 1991 did the same), the 49ers receivers and running backs, especially Michael Crabtree and Frank Gore, repeatedly added yards after contact.

While the Saints did surpass San Francisco’s first-in-the-league scoring defense (13.4 points per-game) and No. 2 total defense (277.2), those two returns for touchdowns more than made up for any statistical deficiencies.

So where do the Saints go from here?

To Atlanta on Thursday and the New York Giants on Dec. 9, meaning they need at least a split of their next two games to have any playoff hopes by the time they return to the Superdome on Dec. 15 against Tampa Bay.

How sweet it would have been to be going to Atlanta at 6-5.