Vargas: Saints keep finding ways to win

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)

Down by three with 3 minutes, 18 seconds left in the game, the 49ers rushed five players — four of them Pro Bowlers last season — at Saints quarterback Drew Brees.

The offensive line fended off Patrick Willis, Justin Smith, NaVorro Bowman and Tony Jerod-Eddie, the only one of the group not to be chosen for last season’s NFL all-star game. But the fifth 2012 Pro Bowler, Ahmad Brooks, beat right tackle Zach Strief around the edge and, with his right forearm, clothes-lined Brees at the San Francisco 45.

The ball popped out of Brees’ hands and into Willis’ grasp. It would’ve been New Orleans’ fifth turnover of the game after a Brees interception, a muffed punt, a fumble out the back of the 49ers end zone after a near pick-six and a loss of possession on downs.

All of that led to two touchdowns and two field goals for the 49ers, who were on the verge of winning even though 10 of the 13 runs from their star tailback, Frank Gore, went for 3 yards or fewer. They were on the verge of winning even though their quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, had not completed a single pass that gained more than 17 yards and averaged a puny 4.1 yards per attempt.

But Brooks was correctly whistled for illegal contact to Brees’ neck and head area. Then, with blood dripping out of his mouth and down his chin, Brees stood up and led the Saints to finish a drive that set up Garrett Hartley for a game-tying, 42-yard field goal.

A Saints defense that had prevented the 49ers from scoring on the eight possessions they had that didn’t result from a turnover soon produced a fifth three-and-out on the day. New Orleans’ offense rewarded that by setting up Hartley for a 31-yard field goal and, as time expired, he nailed his third kick in the last 7:50 of the game to vanquish San Francisco (6-4).

Figuratively and quite literally, the Saints (8-2) had taken it right on the chin from one of the hardest-hitting, most opportunistic teams in football. The Saints had picked themselves up off the turf and prevailed, electrifying the New Orleans area as they prepared to visit their nemeses, the Atlanta Falcons (2-8), on Thursday. The Saints then head to Seattle (10-1) for a Dec. 2 date with the top team in the NFC at the moment.

But Brooks’ takedown of Brees wasn’t the last blow the Saints would weather before their trips to Atlanta — to renew a rivalry where the games are rarely routs — and Seattle, where the home team hasn’t lost in 13 games.

Another blow landed Monday when it became clear the Saints would almost certainly need to navigate the rest of their schedule without starting cornerback Jabari Greer, their leader in pass break-ups with 12.

Greer badly hurt his knee after jumping to defend a pass midway through the first quarter Sunday. He was carted off. About 24 hours later, news broke that the Saints had signed second-year cornerback Trevin Wade.

If Greer’s year is indeed done, the Saints have proved they’ve got the coaching and personnel to make do. Outside linebackers Will Smith and Victor Butler as well as defensive end Kenyon Coleman were lost for the season before it even got going.

Starting nose tackle Brodrick Bunkley has missed games because of injury, and prominent defensive end Cameron Jordan has had to brave through a hurt ankle. Safety Roman Harper missed seven games, and Malcolm Jenkins missed two games. Jon Vilma played one game and went on season-ending IR.

None of that has stopped a Saints defense in its first year under coordinator Rob Ryan from allowing the NFL’s fourth-fewest total yards per game (305.4) and third-fewest passing yards (191.4) entering Monday’s game.

Yet make no mistake about it. Coach Sean Payton put it well when he said Monday, “It’s always difficult when someone like Jabari, who’s ... been a staple of what we’ve done defensively, goes down with an injury like he sustained.”

Greer has indeed been a staple in the defensive secondary since joining the Saints in 2009. He’s been in 63 regular-season games for the Saints and started all but three of them, breaking up 69 passes, intercepting nine and having a hand in the capture of Super Bowl XLIV.

This year, aside from leading the team in disrupted passes, he had a pick in a Week 4 win at home against the Miami Dolphins.

But that wasn’t all the Saints seemed to be on the brink of losing because of the injury to Greer, a soft-spoken husband and father of two who is unfailingly polite with media and is known for being a student and performer of jazz music.

As Jordan said, “We can’t replace Jabari and the ... spiritual leadership he brings to the team as well as the field leadership.”