NEW ORLEANS -- If you watched them run together off the field -- back-slapping, glad-handing, laughing in the hallway beneath the stands -- then you knew how much this victory meant to the New Orleans Saints.
They drank it in. They let it surround them. They knew that eventually they would have to forget it and move on, but not now. Later, maybe.
After so many losses to the San Francisco 49ers in the closing minutes, this game yesterday was theirs.
"It takes the monkey off our backs a little bit with the 49ers," said kicker Morten Andersen, whose 49-yard field goal with five seconds left lifted the Saints to a 16-13 victory at the Superdome. "They've had a tremendous amount of success against us, but we proved we can take it to the wire with them and win. That's the most important thing."
Until yesterday, though, the Saints seldom were able to win these kinds of games against the 49ers. They were more likely to fold than flourish.
A year ago, for instance, they failed to hold a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter and lost, 21-20. In 1991, they wasted a seven-point lead when the 49ers scored three times in the last five minutes. In 1990, there was the decision by Saints coach Jim Mora to throw on third down with a two-point advantage and time running down. The 49ers came back to win that one, 13-12, on a field goal.
And on and on.
"It was a nice change for us to finally win at the end against a great football team," Mora said. "We've been in so many that you play hard for 60 minutes and then it's a bite-your-head-off loss."
Not this time. The Saints moved from their 23-yard line to the 49ers' 31 in 1 minute, 3 seconds, giving Andersen the chance to win it.
"It went through; that's all I know," he said of the kick, his longest of the season. "But I knew as soon as I hit it that it was good.
"It's a big-time win for us. You just can't underestimate the value of a game like this. It adds character, gives you experience, gives you all the positive things you need."
They sounded like a team that had finally overcome a longtime nemesis -- not just in one game, but perhaps for good. This, someone suggested, was a shift in the balance of power in the NFC West.
Wide receiver Eric Martin would not accept that notion. "Those guys are banged up," he said. "They're not the 49ers of the past, but they still gave us all we could handle. We know that if we score 25 or 30 points, they'll find a way to score 25 or 30, too."
Together, the 49ers and the Saints could not combine for 30. But it still came down to the last minute, after the 49ers had tied the game at 13 and given the Saints one chance to prevent overtime.
New Orleans moved swiftly, starting with a shovel pass from quarterback Wade Wilson to running back Dalton Hilliard that went for 9 yards. A pass from Wilson to Martin moved the ball to the Saints' 47. Then, after an incomplete pass, a run by Wilson moved New Orleans into 49ers' territory. The Saints were getting close.
"They wanted to come at us with a hard rush," Wilson said of the first play in the drive, "so we threw the shovel pass because they hadn't seen it before. If you can make a first down quickly and put the other team on its heels, you can get your momentum going."
That's what happened. In seven plays, the Saints were suddenly on the 49ers' 32, and Andersen was marching into the game.