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Divisional grades: Saints-49ers


Grading out the performances from San Francisco's thrilling 36-32 win over New Orleans Saturday afternoon in NFC divisional playoff action.

Quarterback: Drew Brees was historically deadly in the Superdome, but much less effective outdoors all season. That disappointing trend continued Saturday. He threw two first-half INTs that set the tone for the game, and simply did not look like the record-setting passer fans saw for much of the 2011 season. Yes, he passed for an impressive 462 yards (giving him 928 in two playoff games). But it took him a franchise-record 63 attempts to do it (7.3 yards per attempt). His four TD tosses were highlighted by a beautiful pass to Jimmy Graham for what could have been a career highlight-reel, game-winning score in the final two minutes. But then the defense failed to hold. Grade: B-

Running Backs: Darren Sproles was Brees' favorite target, catching a game-high 15 passes out of the backfield for 119 yards and a 44-yard score in the fourth quarter. But he also lost a fumble (on a punt return). The ground game, which sparkled for much of the year, was largely ineffective. Sproles and Chris Ivory rarely carried the ball and produced little when they did (12 rushes, 26 yards), and Pierre Thomas only got one carry before leaving with injury. Grade: D

Receivers: New Orleans managed to lose a game in which three different players topped 100 yards receiving: WR Marques Colston (9 catches, 136 yards, 1 TD), the all-purpose RB Sproles and game-breaking Graham (5 catches, 103 yards, 2 TD). Graham made athletic catches for each of his scores -- the team's first (14 yards) and last (a spectacular 66-yard play). With the score 20-14 early in the fourth quarter, Colston dropped a perfect pass into his hands at the goal line. It would have been a game-tying touchdown. The Saints settled for a 48-yard field goal. Grade: A-

Offensive Line: The Saints entered the game with one of the most dominant offensive lines in football (No. 1 on the Offensive Hog Index used to rate each offensive line at Cold, Hard Football They were overmatched by San Francisco's young, playmaking defensive line in this game. Brees was sacked just three times in 66 drop backs, but was hurried throughout the game. The left side of the line, tackle Jermon Bushrod and guard Carl Nicks, were overmatched for much of the day, especially when trying to contain DE Justin Smith. Grade: C-

Defensive Line: New Orleans gave up 36 points, the most since its Week 1 42-34 loss to the defending champ Packers, thanks largely to an ineffective day by its defensive front. The few times Alex Smith was pressured came when the Saints brought extra pass rushers from the secondary. Grade: D

Linebackers: Martez Wilson made one of the few big plays the Saints defense produced all day, punching the ball away from Alex Smith and killing a potential San Francisco scoring drive at the end of the first half. Jonathan Vilma recovered, giving Brees & Co. a chance (unfulfilled) to put much-needed points on the board before intermission. It's a testament to the ineffectiveness of the linebacking corps when the team's leading tacklers were in the secondary. Grade: D

Defensive Backs: Safety Roman Harper had a huge day. His pair of sacks (1.5 on the stat sheet), including one that forced an Alex Smith fumble, killed two San Francisco drives. He and Malcom Jenkins, who added another sack, led the team with 8 tackles each. But the unit also allowed 49ers QB Alex Smith to have a career performance and was nowhere to be found when San Francisco ripped off 85 yards in just 88 seconds to win the game. Grade: C-

Special Teams: Saints returners suffered two major gaffes: Courtney Roby muffed a kick return that the 49ers recovered and turned into a David Akers field goal to take a 17-0 lead early in the second quarter. Sproles was stripped of the ball on the first punt return of the second half, leading to another field goal and a 20-14 49ers lead. In a game that San Francisco won by four points, the two huge mistakes were critical. John Kasay converted his one field goal attempt from 48 yards. Thomas Morstead punted well (and often -- five times -- by Saints standards), averaging 39.6 yards per kick, including a 60-yarder. Grade: D

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Coaching: It's hard to blame a coach for a four-point loss on the road against a 13-3 team when his players commit five turnovers. But it was also obvious throughout the year that the Saints were not a complete team: They were dominant at home in the dome, where Drew Brees was able to pick apart opponents and overcome a flawed defense. They were a very different team on the road and also failed to protect the ball for much of the year. Despite a prolific QB who throws few INTs, the Saints were -3 in turnovers this year. All those flaws were exposed on the road against a team that played smarter, more efficient football in all phases of the game this year. Grade: C

Quarterback: Alex Smith had a coming-out season in 2011 after a disappointing career for the former No. 1 overall draft pick. Then he had his coming-out moment in his first playoff game, leading the 49ers on a lightning-quick 85-yard game-winning touchdown drive that took just 88 seconds. The drive was highlighted by a beautiful long pass down left sideline that he dropped over the head of Vernon Davis and into the tight end's hand. The march ended with a perfect 14-yard strike to Davis for the game-winning score. Most importantly, Smith did what he did all season: he protected the football (0 INT, 1 lost fumble) on a day when the more highly touted Drew Brees threw two picks. Oh, Smith also ran 28 yards around the left end for a shocking go-ahead score with less than two minutes to play in the game. Turns out his best moment was yet to come. Grade: A+

Running Backs: It was a quiet day for the San Francisco ground game until Frank Gore exploded for a 42-yard run through the heart of the New Orleans defense midway through the fourth quarter with the 49ers in their own territory and clinging to a six-point lead. With another broken tackle it could have been a 64-yard TD run eerily reminiscent of Seattle RB Marshawn Lynch's 67-yard TD run against the Saints in last year's playoffs. San Fran's running backs ended the day with 20 carries for 112 yards. Gore also caught 7 passes for 38 yards. Grade: B

Receivers: Tight end Vernon Davis was the game's biggest star with 7 catches for 180 yards and 2 TDs, including the first (a 49-yarder) and the last (a 14-yard game-winner). His performance rivaled Smith's for the top breakout performance from a team that was filled with them Saturday. Kyle Williams dropped what should have been a first-down catch on third down at a critical point in the fourth quarter. Michael Crabtree was largely a non-factor (4 catches, 25 yards), though he did catch an early TD to give the 49ers a 14-0 lead. Grade: B+

Offensive Line: Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley made a big downfield block on safety Isa Abdul-Quddus to spring Smith for his late TD run. Smith was sacked four times, but three of those cae on safety blitzes. The Saints were largely unable to generate pressure on Smith without sending extra players. The 49ers did not run often and, save for a 42-yard run by Frank Gore, were not particularly effective when they did. Grade: B

Defensive Line: The 49ers boasted one of the best defensive lines in football all season (No. 2 on the Defensive Hog Index, behind Baltimore, used by Cold, Hard Football Facts). They won the battle against the league's best offensive line on this day. Justin Smith came up with a huge sack to end a Saints drive early in the second half and otherwise harried Brees much of the day. The unit was not dominant, but it won the battle in the trenches against a great unit. Grade: B+

Linebackers: The 49ers landed a gamer in Aldon Smith, the No. 7 overall pick in the 2011 draft. He played both upright and in a down position and moved from side to side, and otherwise made life miserable on the usually perfectly protected Brees. The corps of Smith, NaVorro Bowman, Patrick Willis and Ahmad Brooks made their case for best linebacker corps in the NFL by stifling a dominant offense for much of the day. Grade: A-

Defensive Backs: One of the defining scenes of the game was Brees with plenty of time in the pocket, but unable to find an open receiver under blanket coverage from the 49ers secondary. Dashon Goldson and Tarell Brown (in a particularly athletic play) each picked off passes in the first half. Donte Whitner made a series of big hits to help set the tone, including a forced fumble in the first half. Carlos Rogers made a brilliant break up, leaping up to knock away what looked like a TD throw on a long post pattern to Adrian Arrington late in the the third quarter. A spectacular day for the unit nearly fell apart in the final moments of the game when New Orleans' tight end Graham split the defensive backfield for a 66-yard TD catch-and-rumble that looked like it would go down as the winning score. Grade: A-

Special Teams: The game began to spin out of control for the Saints when Patrick Willis, the star linebacker on kick coverage, recovered a muffed kick return by the Saints late in the first quarter. Blake Constanzo forced Sproles to fumble on the first punt of the second half. Colin Jones recovered. Jones also made a big hit late in the fourth quarter to pin the Saints at their own 12. David Akers connected on all three field goals attempts. Midway through third quarter, punter Andy Lee unleashed a monster 63-yard punt from deep in his own territory that bounced and rolled to the New Orleans 14. Grade: A+

Coaching: Jim Harbaugh should have been everybody's choice for Coach of the Year for taking a dysfunctional San Francisco team and turning it into one of the smartest, most efficient teams in football in 2011. That trend continued Saturday in a game that was a perfect microcosm of the season. The 49ers, who won the league-wide turnover battle in the 2011 season (+28), also won the turnover battle in this game (+4); they played smart situational football and committed just three penalties for 33 yards while upsetting a team many considered a true Super Bowl contender. Grade: A-