NEW ORLEANS -- Wide receiver Jerry Rice, a key member of the team that has dominated the NFC West for much of the past decade, tried to remain positive after the San Francisco 49ers lost to the New Orleans Saints yesterday, 10-3, to fall to 4-6.
"It's tough, but it's also a challenge to work your way out of this and get back into that winning tradition again," Rice said. "You've got to keep your head up. If we have to fight to the end, it's all about that."
With third-string quarterback Steve Bono, the 49ers fought to the end in a far-from-artistic game against the division-leading Saints (9-1). But on a potential game-tying drive late in the fourth quarter, fullback Harry Sydney fumbled the ball away on the New Orleans 15-yard line with 3 minutes, 41 seconds left, helping San Francisco to its second straight loss.
"It's sad when every game you lose, you had a chance to do something," said San Francisco offensive tackle Steve Wallace, referring to all of the 49ers' defeats being by a touchdown or less. "We had times [yesterday] to get into field-goal position and get back in that way. And we didn't. That's why we're 4-6 instead of 10-0."
The Saints were without quarterback Bobby Hebert (strained rotator cuff) and fullback Craig "Ironhead" Heyward (fractured foot). But they benefited from four San Francisco turnovers, the first (a fumble by Tom Rathman) of which led to Steve Walsh's 8-yard scoring pass to Eric Martin in the second quarter. That put the Saints up, 7-3.
Morten Andersen added a 21-yard field goal in the third quarter for the final scoring, but the kick was delayed eight minutes, when a burning piece of burlap that was ignited during a halftime fireworks show fell from the roof onto the 40-yard line.
Sideline workers quickly put out the fire with ice and water.
"The difference was the take-away, give-away ratio. We had one turnover; they had [three]," said New Orleans coach Jim Mora. "I felt like our players played well. Even though we only scored 10, I thought Steve Walsh did a good job."
At least on the touchdown play. Overall, Walsh was intercepted on the second play of the game and completed four of 13 first-half passes -- drawing many boos from the crowd of 68,591. But his team had the 7-3 halftime lead because Bono completed two of 11 passes for 12 yards and the 49ers had 72 yards of total offense in the half.
New Orleans went up 10-3 on a 21-yard field goal by Andersen on the first series of the second half. But the Saints' offense then went flat and did not get a first down from midway through that first drive until just before the two-minute warning.
"It will be a short highlight film of this offensively," said Walsh, who finished with 10 completions in 25 attempts for 116 yards. "It was a frustrating day."
It was more frustrating for Bono, whose statistics (15 of 32 for 131 yards) don't reflect the numerous passes his receivers dropped. Bono also made a key mistake early in the fourth quarter, when, on second down on the New Orleans 29, he lost the ball while being sacked.
Two possessions later, San Francisco took over with 4:55 left. Bono completed four passes to get the 49ers to the New Orleans 17. But Bono barely overthrew Rice in the end zone on first down, and Sydney fumbled the ball away on the next play to seal the loss.
New Orleans' victory gives it a four-game lead on second-place Atlanta (5-5). With two of its remaining games against teams with records above .500, the final six weeks could be a cakewalk.
San Francisco is left possibly having to win its last six games for a shot at the playoffs. With New Orleans, Kansas City and Chicago left, that can be a tall order.
"I'm not going to give up. One thing about this team, it has character," Rice said. "We cannot get used to losing. "There's no way we're going to accept that with the 49ers."