NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Staggered by a shoulder pad to the head and ripped down by a forearm hit across the neck, Drew Brees was crumpled on the turf with blood on his chin.
Yet the vicious sack by San Francisco's Ahmad Brooks also drew a flag that canceled out Brees' lost fumble with 3:12 left and gave the Saints' prolific quarterback one chance too many.
Brees guided New Orleans to two late Garrett Hartley field goals — the second as time expired — and the Saints upended the 49ers 23-20 on Sunday.
"All I remember is just getting clothes-lined in the chin and as I'm on the ground, I'm saying, 'That's got to be a flag,'" Brees said. "One of my teammates kind of picked me up and said, 'Are you all right?' and he said, 'Don't worry, there's a flag.'
"I said, 'All right, good.' Just took a moment, and you've got to get ready to go."
The Superdome crowd grumbled each time the Saints settled for high-pressure field goals in the fourth quarter, apparently nervous that Hartley, who'd missed four of six attempts in the previous three games, would slip up again.
Instead, Hartley made all three of his field goal attempts in the final quarter to wipe out New Orleans' 20-14 deficit.
His 42-yarder with 2:06 left tied it. His game-winner was from 31 yards. He also hit from 21 yards earlier.
"This team and this coaching staff and this organization never took their foot off the gas with me and here we are sitting at 8-2 and getting ready for Atlanta," Hartley said.
The Saints trailed 20-17 when Brooks leveled Brees. The Niners protested the resulting flag vigorously.
"It was very frustrating. The game could have gone a totally different direction than what it went," Brooks said. "I was just mad because that was a big play in the game. We lost, and that's probably the reason why."
The Saints (8-2) improved to 6-0 at home despite three turnovers and a failed fourth down conversion.
"You're going to have games like this," Brees said. "You still find way to win against a playoff-caliber opponent with a lot at stake at this point in the season. That says a lot."
The victory guaranteed the Saints would remain at least a game ahead of Carolina — which plays Monday night — for first place in the NFC South. It also kept New Orleans one game in the loss column behind top NFC seed Seattle (10-1).
Marques Colston finished with five catches for 80 yards to become the Saints' all-time leader in yards receiving with 7,923, passing Eric Martin's two-decade-old mark of 7,854.
"It's definitely an awesome accomplishment," said Colston, a 2006 seventh-round draft choice out of Hofstra. "It had a lot to do with some of the guys in this locker room and this coaching staff, but we're in the midst of something a lot more meaningful right now."