The New Orleans Saints loss to the San Francisco 49ers on Saturday was about as gut-wrenching as it gets.

And most folks who watched the game who were rooting for the Black and Gold probably never want to see defensive co-0rdinator Gregg Williams again.  (They'll get their wish.  Williams is headed to St. Louis, it appears.)

But, in analyzing the loss, this Saints team was beaten earlier than the final drive.  The drive was just the by-product.

They weren't just beaten.  They were beaten up.

It's not often a turning point happens on the first possession of a game, but that's what happened on Saturday.  The Saints got the opening kickoff and methodically drove down the field.  It looked like a typical Saints game.  Get the ball, drive it, get points, set the tempo, send a message.

But in this case, the message was sent by the guys in red.

It was sent on a pass to Pierre Thomas.  Thomas was set to get a first down and goal inside the five yard line.  But Donte Whitner had other ideas.  He knocked Thomas out cold with a devastating hit which caused a fumble.  The 49ers recovered.  And, the message was sent.

Not today, fellas.

Thomas would not return.  And, whatever hope the Saints had to run the football was gone.  And, although the Drew Brees dimension is as good as it gets in the NFL, the 6th best rushing attack in the league was negated.

On the same drive, Whitner also knocked Jimmy Graham out of the game.  Graham was able to return, but, on that one drive, the 49ers looked the Saints offense right in the eye and said, very succinctly, "We're tougher than you are."

And on this day, they were right.  The Niners were tougher, both physically and mentally.

The Saints then proceeded to do the one thing that everyone said they couldn't do in the pre-game analysis:  They turned the football over....four times in the first half.  An interception of Drew Brees set up the 49ers second touchdown and a Courtney Roby fumble of a punt gave the Bay Boys three more.  It was 17-0 before the Saints got on the board.  To New Orleans' credit, they came back to make it a three point game at halftime.

But plenty of damage had been done.

Although the game settled down in the second half (with one more Saints turnover, a fumble by Darren Sproles on special teams), the 49ers continued to punish the Saints physically.  The last four minutes, as we all know by now, were pretty wild.  Brees' touchdown pass to Sproles was negated by Alex Smith's naked bootleg touchdown run.  Brees' strike to Jimmy Graham should have been enough.

But it wasn't.

Williams isl being criticized for continuing to play the patented Saints blitzing defense in the final possession.  Of course, had the Saints gone to a prevent defense and the 'Niners scored anyway, we'd all be using the worn-out cliche' "the only thing a prevent defense does is prevent you from winning."  Damned if you do, damned if you don't.  The 47 yard catch and run by Vernon Davis which set up the winning score was the backbreaker.  And, on a day when the 49ers showed they were the tougher team, the site of Roman Harper laying on the ground as Davis celebrated the game winner was apropos.

Dazed.  Battered.  Beaten.  Defeated.

Yes, fans will talk about the final drive.  They'll talk about the five turnovers.  And, those things played a part in one of the most disappointing defeats in Saints' history.  But, on a day when Alex Smith had a better passer rating than Drew Brees, the San Francisco 49ers won because they out-toughed the Saints...physically and mentally.

And New Orleans will have to live with that throughout the postseason.