That was a sludgy, inharmonious game. San Francisco (7-4) found itself in one of those slow-burn boxing matches that goes the distance. It was not a particularly eye-catching performance on either side, but like one of those cerebral Floyd Mayweather wins, it was solid enough to secure a 13-0 win over the Saints (4-8).
It resembled some of those early-season performances when the 49ers leaned heavily on the defense.
That was established with a first-drive fumble forced by Fred Warner on Alvin Kamara.
Despite some aggression by Kyle Shanahan on that drive, with a 4th-and-1 conversion, it finished with a field goal, after Jimmy Garoppolo nearly threw an interception on a third-and-goal.
After back-to-back punts, the offense stalled out again in the red zone. Shanahan opted for a shotgun play on 4th-and-1. It failed, brutally, after Kyle Juszczyk slipped on a route, and Garoppolo tried to run for the touchdown unsuccessfully.
The half, to the 49ers’ relief, did end with a touchdown. Most of the credit for that can go to Jauan Jennings, who dominated the drive.
He ripped off a 13-yard reception, then a pair of 12-yard catches. The latter of those got the 49ers to the five-yard line after Jennings was hit out of bounds. One play later, Garoppolo threw another near-INT that Tyrann Mathieu tipped, but Jennings, falling down, secured it for the lone touchdown of the game.
It put the 49ers up 10-0 at the half, which, as it turned out, was a pretty comfortable lead.
They opened the second half with the ball and a field goal, and avoided a near game-altering catastrophe.
Five plays into that drive, on a third-and-3, Garoppolo threw a near pick-six to Alontae Taylor, who was tackled at the SF eight-yard line. Moments later, it was overturned for a defensive holding call on Chris Harris Jr., and the 49ers drove another 33 yards for a Robbie Gould field goal.
On the opportunities the Saints had to score, the defense came up clutch.
There were only three New Orleans drives that made it inside the San Francisco 30-yard line. One ended in a missed 48-yard field goal by Will Lutz after a false start.
The second was a Talanoa Hufanga-forced fumble on Alvin Kamara at the start of the fourth quarter on the goal line.
The ball hung in the air for what seemed like an eternity. It was inches from being recovered for a touchback, then nearly a touchdown by Saints tight end Juwan Johnson, until Hassan Ridgeway cleared him out, leaving the ball for Dre Greenlaw to fall on at the one.
That pinned the offense and forced a punt, which let New Orleans take over at the 49ers’ 39-yard line and drive inside the 10-yard line again.
Even after a failed Saints third down was bailed out by a penalty, the defense stifled them. Andy Dalton had three-straight incompletions, and on the fourth-straight pass, Nick Bosa got a signature fourth-quarter sack to effectively seal the result.
At that point, the offense let Jordan Mason get his first extended run of the season, with Elijah Mitchell on the sideline.
Mitchell suffered a knee injury in the third quarter and was ruled out before the quarter was over. His injury leads a list of injuries with varying levels of worry.
Spencer Burford was the other 49ers player to be ruled out after he suffered an ankle injury.
No one else was forced out of the game, but Garoppolo took a handful of hard hits, and held his left knee at one point after a low hit and visibly grimaced.
Jimmie Ward departed temporarily with a right leg injury but later returned, and Christian McCaffrey looked hobbled at one point, too.
Those statuses coming out of the game and heading into next week will bear observing and are the only real point of concern in this game.
While New Orleans is offensively challenged, they boast a physical defense and aren’t an easy matchup. This was a game the 49ers should have won and did (and they covered the 10-point spread, too).
It’s now the fourth straight game the 49ers defense — now the number one defense in the NFL by points allowed — has not given up a single point in the second half.