NEW ORLEANS — For the first time this season, the New Orleans Saints grabbed a lead against a strong opponent and refused to let them back into the game.
Rueben Mayes rushed for 128 yards and 2 touchdowns Sunday, and the New Orleans defense produced 4 turnovers as the Saints surprised the San Francisco 49ers, 23-10.
One of Mayes' touchdowns went as designed, a four-yard run. The other was an improvisation.
"I don't do that very often," Mayes said.
The play called for him to sweep right, but the San Francisco defense was out there before he was. He reversed his field and ran all the way back to the left before scoring on a 27-yard run.
"You see a lot of bodies out there, and you just cut it back," Mayes said. "It's instinct."
The Saints have had a habit of blowing leads to strong opponents this season, but in the second half they recorded three sacks, blocked a 33-yard field-goal attempt by Ray Wersching and picked off a pass deep in their territory to shut out San Francisco after intermission.
On the 49ers' first possession of the third quarter, quarterback Mike Moroski hit a wide-open Russ Francis on a 52-yard play to the Saints' five-yard line. Linebacker Rickey Jackson came up with a key third-down sack, and cornerback Johnnie Poe blocked Wersching's field-goal attempt. The Saints then drove for a field goal of their own and a 17-10 advantage.
"They didn't seem to get tired," 49er wide receiver Dwight Clark said. "They just seemed to get more fired up. Once they smelled that victory in the fourth quarter, they started really coming in."
Morten Andersen clinched the victory with field goals of 45, 50 and 23 yards in the second half as the Saints dominated the 49ers in the final 30 minutes to improve to 4-5, while San Francisco dropped to 5-3.
"We're in the race, there's no doubt about it," Saints' Coach Jim Mora said. "Even in our losses against some good teams this year, we've come away with a lot of confidence."
San Francisco Coach Bill Walsh said: "We're still in the divisional race, we're not about to concede anything. There are seven more games and we intend to suit up and be in all of them."
After the block of Wersching's field goal, New Orleans drove 64 yards in 11 plays with Dave Wilson keeping the drive alive by eluding a pass rush in his own end zone before hitting Buford Jordan for 37 yards. That led to Andersen's 50-yard field goal.
Wilson completed 12 of 16 passes for 165 yards.
The 49ers' final chance to get back in the game ended when safety Brett Maxie intercepted a Moroski pass at the Saints' 49-yard line with three minutes to play, and New Orleans ran out the clock.