Already missing quarterback Steve Young, the 49ers lost tight end Brent Jones and fullback William Floyd to potentially season-ending knee injuries, and the Saints held San Francisco to a season low in scoring in an 11-7 victory Sunday.
"Obviously, it's a pretty bitter loss to take," San Francisco Coach George Seifert said. "And when you lose two starting players along with it, that's really severe."
Elvis Grbac's second start in place of Young, out because of an injury to his throwing shoulder, turned sour. The Saints, despite two blown field goals by Chip Lohmiller, pulled off the shocker.
"It was a huge win against a great team," Saint defensive back Vince Buck said. "We still have time to turn this thing around. If we had lost today, I would have said we didn't have a chance."
Jerry Rice became the NFL's leader in receiving yardage, overtaking James Lofton's 14,004. Rice caught eight passes for 108 yards to boost his total to 14,040, but it wasn't enough to stave off defeat.
The Saints (2-6), who entered with the NFL's worst record, took the lead on Mario Bates' 11-yard touchdown run early in the third quarter. A high snap on the conversion turned into a two-point bonus when holder Tom Hodson recovered to pass to Wesley Walls.
Bates finished with 106 yards in 26 carries against the 49ers' top-ranked rush defense.
"Bates ran the ball fabulous today," said quarterback Jim Everett, who was 12 for 26 for 156 yards. "It's the best I've seen him run in black and gold. It was great for me to just go back and hand it off. If we could have 16 games like this, I'd take them. You can't write us off."
Grbac, who played well in San Francisco's 44-10 victory at St. Louis last week, was off-target Sunday. The usually precise offense kept misfiring and he finished 29 for 42 for 243 yards, with two interceptions.
"We just didn't make the plays. They really shut us down in the second half," Grbac said.
"This is very shocking. I don't even know how to deal with this," San Francisco tackle Steve Wallace said.
It went from bad to worse after the game when the 49ers (5-3) learned the extent of the injuries to Jones, hurt in the second quarter, and Floyd, who went down in the final quarter.
"It can't get any worse, losing two key guys like that," safety Tim McDonald said. "That offensive team needs everybody healthy to be successful. The new guys are just going to have to step it up.
"What do you do? Put your head between your legs or stand up and fight back? This team can't wait to play another game."
San Francisco's last drive reached the New Orleans 41, but Winfred Tubbs sacked Grbac for a 12-yard loss and the 49ers wound up punting with 2:20 left.