That one’s gonna leave a mark …

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, January 17, 2012

It’s the most crushing loss in Saints history. It isn’t close.

That much is clear to me, at least, after San Francisco’s 36-32 come-from-behind-then-come-from-behind-again victory in Saturday’s wildcard playoff game.

As I’ve grown older and more mature (allegedly, at least), I’ve learned to cope with the losses of my sports teams more easily … I think we all do … and nothing feels quite as soul crushing as when you’re 13 and the Saints are the center of your universe. And, of course, I can only imagine, and shudder at, the pain we’d ALL be feeling if 2009 never happened, if the Saints had not already banked a Super Bowl victory … the words “mental anguish” spring to mind.

But it still stings, and even more after New York’s win over Green Bay Sunday. That meant the Saints would have hosted the NFC Championship game, in the Super Nintendo Dome, where Drew Brees puts up Tecmo Bowl numbers and the Saints don’t lose. And where they’ve absolutely dominated the Giants, twice, in the Sean Payton era. The Giants are hot enough to where you can’t say it would have been a free pass to the Super Bowl … but we’ve all thought it.

Still, after five turnovers and a game where it all seemed to go wrong, I would have mentally been prepared to cope with the loss had the Saints not overcome it all like they did, with the narrative almost perfect: Much like a game in the 80s between Joe Montana and the Dome Patrol, but with roles reversed, the hard-hitting defensive 49ers controlled everything from the opening whistle, made more than enough breaks to win going away … and yet the game was still within a score.

Despite five forced turnovers, the 49ers did not finish the Saints. Drew Brees still had a chance to ruin their season.

He was up to the challenge, twice. First on his touchdown pass to Darren Sproles, then to Jimmy Graham. The three players who, more than any others, stuck out as the main attractions in this record breaking season. The 49ers allowed the Saints’ best playmakers to beat them. They did it, just as they did all season.

But then the Saints returned the favor.

I’ll never understand the reasoning on that final drive, to gamble when there was no need, to send the house with 40 seconds left and a mile to go to even get into field goal range. Not when Vernon Davis was on the field, and not when you just watched him beat you and erase your lead the first time. Not when it was apparent that the Saints had nobody to match up with him; not when it was apparent that the other 49ers receivers hadn’t stepped up all day.

There was no guarantee Alex Smith wouldn’t have completed a few passes and put David Akers in range for a tying field goal; but it certainly seemed more likely that, with just a time out remaining and the Niners already struggling to conserve time on the drive, that things would end up with another dump pass or two and a forced heave downfield. With 40 seconds left, Smith has to come to you; the clock is your extra defender.

Nonetheless, just as Gregg Williams lived by the sword, it would lead to his demise.

It felt like a game given away by a team that should still be playing, a team that over the last 10 weeks appeared to be the NFL’s Hulk, a rare opportunity for a championship lost.

Give me 100 losses like LSU’s fall to Alabama before another one of these. There was nothing to discuss, to regret, after that BCS title game.

But these losses … they linger.

Sometimes, it seems there’s nothing more painful than the thought of what might have been.

But I can think of one thing …

What should have been.