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Niners fall back to NFC pack after loss to Saints

The San Francisco 49ers have fallen back to the pack in the NFC playoff race after blowing a fourth-quarter lead in Sunday's 23-20 loss to the New Orleans Saints.

Staked to a 20-14 lead early in the fourth quarter, the 49ers' offense had two chances to put the game away.

After going three-and-out on the first series, quarterback Colin Kaepernick took a sack, narrowly avoided an intentional grounding penalty at his own 1-foot line and made the mistake of scrambling out of bounds short of the first-down marker on third down.

Forced to punt back to the Saints with less than two minutes remaining, three-time Pro Bowl special teamer Kassim Osgood gave New Orleans signal-caller Drew Brees good field position with a bone-headed penalty on a fair catch by Darren Sproles.

The mistake-filled fourth quarter highlights Kaepernick's regression while attempting to overcompensate for the lack of playmakers on offense.

With wide receiver Michael Crabtree on the way back, the pressure is on the 49ers to fix their offense while climbing out of a three-way tie for the final NFC playoff spot.

Don't be surprised if their season comes down to a Week 17 showdown at the Arizona Cardinals, a surging team now tied with the 49ers for second place in the NFC West.

Here's what else we learned in Sunday's game:

1. Kaepernick led a ball-control, chain-moving attack that scored on three of four possessions across the late-second to early-fourth quarters. Unfortunately, that was negated by a trio of three-and-outs to start the game and two more to end the game. The 49ers want to use a fullback and second tight end in their power-running game, but it's hard for Kaepernick to succeed in the read option with extra defenders in the box against that "22" personnel. Over the past two weeks, Kaepernick has managed just 4.1 yards on 53 pass attempts. He desperately needs a healthy Crabtree. A softer upcoming schedule will help.

2. Although two games remain against the white-hot Carolina Panthers, Sunday's victory ensures that the Saints control their own destiny for the NFC's No. 2 seed. The Panthers are 1.5 games behind, with a tough Monday night bout looming versus the New England Patriots. The Saints draw a circling-the-drain Falcons team in Week 12.

3. Saints running back Mark Ingram followed up his career game against the Cowboys with just 25 yards on six carries Sunday. His production and playing time are entirely dependent on game momentum. Because he's a liability compared with Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas in the passing game, Ingram is only used heavily when the Saints are protecting a big lead.

4. Sproles missed time with an ankle injury in the second quarter, but the running back returned for the second half.

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