SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — With Drew Brees' big arm, a 1-2 running punch in Mark Ingram and Tim Hightower and all of those capable receiving targets, the New Orleans Saints suddenly are looking like a legitimate contender again.
Forget that 0-3 start. Brees still has big plans for this bunch.
He threw a pair of touchdown passes to Michael Thomas and another to Ingram, who also ran for a 75-yard score a week after being benched as the Saints beat the lowly San Francisco 49ers 41-23 on Sunday.
"I want to win. I want to win a championship. I want to see this team come together and do something special," Brees said. "We've won four out of five and we've really grown over the last five weeks. I'm excited about the second half of the season. Here we are, halfway through 4-4 again. I feel like our best is yet to come. We've got some momentum now."
Ingram, replaced by Hightower during last Sunday's 25-20 win against Seattle after fumbling for a second straight game, scored his second straight TD for the Saints on a career-long run to answer immediately after DuJuan Harris caught a 47-yard touchdown pass from Colin Kaepernick. Ingram's run also was the second-longest in Saints history and he wound up with 158 yards rushing as San Francisco allowed an opposing 100-yard runner for the seventh straight game.
Afterward, Hightower made sure to find Ingram with some kind words.
"To see him respond the way he did, I'm proud of him," Hightower said. "That's not easy to do."
The Saints (4-4) have grabbed back some momentum and returned to the race in the NFC South. They won for the fourth time in five games following an 0-3 start and eighth in the last 10 regular-season meetings with San Francisco.
Brees dazzled in his debut game at Levi's Stadium, where "Fire Baalke" signs showed up on cars and in the stands in reference to the beleaguered 49ers general manager. The QB completed 28 of 39 passes for 323 yards in the Saints' first trip to San Francisco's home field since a 36-32 loss in the divisional playoffs after the 2011 season.
Brees now has 449 career touchdown passes, leaving him one shy of becoming the third player to throw for 450 TDs. Peyton Manning (539) and Hall of Famer Brett Favre (508) are the others.
Kaepernick also threw a 65-yard touchdown pass to Vance McDonald just before halftime, when New Orleans led 31-20. In Kaepernick's third game back as starter, he had his best game yet: He became the 15th player in franchise history to rush for 2,000 yards and went 24 of 39 for 398 yards passing — second most yards of his career.
"Today was a step in the right direction," Kaepernick said.
But the Niners (1-7) didn't have nearly enough to avoid their seventh straight loss since shutting out the Rams to start the year.
Hightower, who became the Saints' first 100-yard rusher of the season last week against Seattle, ran for a 4-yard touchdown in the first to put his team ahead for good. Craig Robertson's interception of a pass by Kaepernick and return of 29 yards just four plays later set up Brees' 1-yard touchdown pass to Thomas .
Phil Dawson kicked field goals of 49, 48 and 46 yards for San Francisco.
Brees added more notables to his remarkable resume: He has 55 career games passing for at least 300 yards while throwing three touchdown passes, most in NFL history. Also, he didn't have an interception Sunday, becoming the first player in league history with 30 career games recording 300 yards passing, three TDs and no interceptions.
Former 49ers linebacker Nate Stupar forced Mike Davis' fumble and recovered it early in the third quarter, the second straight big game for the journeyman in his fourth NFL season.
Last week, he intercepted a pass by Russell Wilson.
Breakdowns for both defenses led to the high-scoring, offensive day. The first half accounted for 663 of total offense combined — 484 yards passing by Brees and Kaepernick together — and 1,057 in all once the game was over.
The teams came into the game as two of the league's worst defenses, San Francisco at No. 30 and New Orleans 28th.
HOLDING, TIMES THREE
Just before halftime, 49ers defenders Eric Reid, Keith Reaser and Jimmie Ward were flagged for simultaneous, intentional holding penalties against a trio of receivers to keep the Saints' targets from getting open in the end zone. New Orleans had only one more chance and settled for Wil Lutz's 26-yard field goal as time expired.
San Francisco was penalized four times early, too — two on its first defensive series and two more on its initial offensive possession that had the Niners settling for Phil Dawson's 49-yard field goal.
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Posted on Mon, November 7, 2016
by JANIE McCAULEY, AP Sports Writer