By BRETT MARTEL
AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS — Ahmad Brooks, Donte Whitner and the rest of the San Francisco defense made enough plays for the 49ers to win no matter who they started at quarterback.
Brooks and Whitner returned interceptions for touchdowns, the 49ers sacked Drew Brees five times, and San Francisco ended the New Orleans Saints’ three-game winning streak, 31-21 on Sunday.
Colin Kaepernick was solid in his second career start while Alex Smith, deemed healthy enough to suit up after recovering from a concussion, watched from the sideline. Kaepernick passed for 231 yards, including a short touchdown to Frank Gore. He also ran for a 7-yard score. He threw his first career interception, but it was inconsequential.
Brees finished with 267 yards and three TDs. After rushing for 140 yards or more in each of its previous three games, New Orleans (5-6) managed only 59 yards against San Francisco (8-2-1).
One of Brees’ scoring passes went to Marques Colston, who set a Saints record with his 56th career touchdown with the club.
The Niners gained 144 yards on the ground, led by Gore with 83. The Saints shut down tight end Vernon Davis, the player they feared perhaps the most, but the Niners’ other tight end, Delanie Walker, had three catches for 81 yards, including one for 45 yards to set up a touchdown.
San Francisco’s interceptions turned a 14-7 deficit into a 28-14 lead.
Brooks snagged the first, returning it 50 yards late in the first half. The second came on Brees’ first pass of the second half. The ball deflected off Colston’s hands as the leaping receiver was upended and briefly shaken up. Whitner snagged the deflected pass and returned it 42 yards to make it 28-14
Since losing to the New York Giants on Oct. 14, the Niners are 5-0-1 and now hold a 2 1/2-game lead in the NFC West with five games to go.
It seems their biggest problem at this point is deciding who should be their No. 1 QB. Smith, who led the Niners to the NFC title game last season, started the first nine games this season before his injury.
The Saints, meanwhile, missed a chance to pull into a tie for the last NFC wild card berth, and remain a game out with another tough game coming up at Atlanta on Thursday night.
Kaepernick used the running ability that served him so well in college at Nevada to give the Niners the early lead, scoring on a read-option run that fooled the Saints defense as well as the Superdome crowd, which erupted, initially believing the play had been snuffed out, while Kaepernick scampered to his left and scored easily.
The drive was highlighted by Mario Manningham’s 40-yard gain after Kaepernick found him wide open on a short crossing route.
Then, New Orleans’ offense, which could not muster a first down on its first two drives, suddenly ignited, marching 79 yards in 10 plays — highlighted by Joe Morgan’s diving 33-yard catch — to tie it on tight end David Thomas’ 6-yard catch.
San Francisco entered the game allowing a league-low 13.4 points per game. The Saints surpassed that in the second quarter when Brees hit Colston to make it 14-7 and capitalize on Ted Ginn Jr.’s fumbled punt, which Rafael Bush had recovered on the 49ers 10.
New Orleans looking intent on going up by two scores after Kaepernick’s first career interception on an underthrown pass that cornerback Patrick Robinson easily caught. But the crowd has hardly finished celebrating when Brooks stepped in front of Brees’ pass for Jimmy Graham and returned it 50 yards to tie it at 14 shortly before halftime.
FALCONS 24, BUCS 23
TAMPA, Fla. — Matt Ryan threw for 353 yards and overcame two big turnovers by leading another late touchdown drive to give the Atlanta Falcons a 24-23 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday.
Ryan teamed with Julio Jones on an 80-yard TD in the third quarter, but the NFC South leaders found themselves trailing 23-17 after the Bucs marched for a touchdown, then forced a fumble by Ryan to set up a field goal that put the Falcons in catchup mode.
Michael Turner’s 1-yard TD run put Atlanta ahead for good with 7:55 left. Connor Barth missed a 56-yard goal for Tampa Bay (6-5) in the closing minutes, and the Bucs’ four-game winning streak ended when Josh Freeman’s desperation pass fell incomplete in the end zone with no time remaining.
The win enabled the Falcons (10-1) to keep pace with Houston for the NFL’s best record. Turner also scored a fourth-quarter TD that helped the Falcons overcome mistakes to beat Arizona 23-19 last week.
BRONCOS 17, CHIEFS 9
KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Peyton Manning threw for 285 yards and two touchdowns, and Denver rallied for its sixth straight win.
Manning hit tight end Jacob Tamme late in the first half and wide receiver Demaryius Thomas in the third quarter, and that was more than enough to overcome three field goals by the Chiefs’ Ryan Succop as Kansas City lost its eighth straight game.
Knowshon Moreno added 85 yards rushing for the AFC West-leading Broncos (8-3). Moreno got the start in place of Willis McGahee, who went on injured reserve this week with a knee injury.
Jamaal Charles ran for 107 yards for the Chiefs (1-10), who failed again to punch the ball into the end zone. They still haven’t scored a touchdown since the first quarter against Pittsburgh on Nov. 12, a span of more than 11 quarters and 173 minutes of game time.
BEARS 28, VIKINGS 10
CHICAGO — Jay Cutler threw for 188 yards and a touchdown after missing a game because of a concussion as Chicago ended a two-game losing streak.
Tied with Green Bay for the NFC North lead and just a game ahead of Minnesota (6-5) coming in, the Bears (8-3) grabbed a 25-3 halftime lead thanks to Cutler’s pinpoint passing. The defense held Adrian Peterson in check early on, although he finished with 108 yards rushing.
The win could prove costly. The Bears lost wide receiver Devin Hester (concussion), running back Matt Forte (ankle), cornerback Charles Tillman (ankle) and both starting guards to injuries.
BENGALS 34, RAIDERS 10
CINCINNATI — Andy Dalton threw three touchdown passes and Cincinnati showed its former quarterback, Carson Palmer, that it has moved on without him.
BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for 129 yards and a touchdown against the NFL’s most generous defense. He had runs of 48 and 39 yards — the longest of his career — to set up scores.
Palmer had a tough time all-around in his return to Cincinnati, going 19 of 34 for 146 yards with four sacks and an interception.
With their third straight win, the Bengals (6-5) moved back into the playoff chase. Oakland (3-8) lost its fourth in a row.
A brawl in the fourth quarter resulted in Oakland’s Tommy Kelly and Lamarr Houston and Cincinnati’s Andrew Whitworth getting ejected.
BROWNS 20, STEELERS 14
CLEVELAND — Chris Rainey’s fumble with 2:25 left — Pittsburgh’s seventh of eight turnovers — was recovered by Cleveland’s Phil Taylor and the Browns handed their hated rivals a potentially devastating loss.
Charlie Batch, starting at quarterback for Pittsburgh because of injuries to Ben Roethlisberger and Byron Leftwich, was picked off three times and the Steelers (6-5) lost five fumbles, the last on the final play of the game to help the Browns (3-8) beat Pittsburgh for just the second time in 18 games.
Browns quarterback Brandon Weeden sustained a head injury in the final minutes. Backup Colt McCoy finished the win. Batch was 20 of 34 for 199 yards.
COLTS 20, BILLS 13
INDIANAPOLIS — T.Y. Hilton scored on a 75-yard punt return and caught an 8-yard TD pass from Andrew Luck.
Hilton is the first player in franchise history to score by punt return and pass reception in the same game. Indy improved to 7-4.
Luck was 20 of 37 for 240 yards with a TD and an interception.
Buffalo (4-7) ended its red-zone drought with 11:30 left with a 1-yard TD pass from Ryan Fitzpatrick to Lee Smith to make it 20-13.
JAGUARS 24, TITANS 19
JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Chad Henne threw two touchdown passes, sparking the NFL’s worst offense for the second consecutive week.
The Jaguars (2-9) snapped a seven-game losing streak and were competitive at home for the first time this season.
Henne, making his first start in more than 13 months, found Cecil Shorts III on a 59-yard touchdown play in the third quarter and hooked up with rookie Justin Blackmon for a 7-yard score in the fourth.
The Titans (4-7) cut the lead to 21-19 on Jake Locker’s 6-yard pass to Kenny Britt with 4:52 remaining and had the ball with a chance to take the lead. But Russell Allen tipped Locker’s pass over the middle, and Dwight Lowery — back on the field after a five-week absence — had his first interception of the season.
DOLPHINS 24, SEAHAWKS 21
MIAMI — Dan Carpenter kicked a 43-yard field goal on the final, and Miami scored 17 points in the last 8:08.
Rookie Ryan Tannehill drove Miami 65 yards in the final 92 seconds to set up the winning kick. He finished 18 for 26 for 253 yards and a score.
Leon Washington returned a kickoff for a touchdown for the eighth time to tie the NFL career record and put Seattle ahead with eight minutes left. Miami answered with an 80-yard drive capped by Tannehill’s 29-yard scoring pass to Charles Clay, making it 21-all.
Miami (5-6) broke a three-game losing streak. The Seahawks (6-5), who are unbeaten at home this year, lost for the fifth time in six road games.
RAVENS 16, CHARGERS 13 OT
SAN DIEGO — Justin Tucker kicked a 38-yard field with 1:07 left in overtime to complete a stunning comeback.
San Diego led 13-3 on Nick Novak’s 30-yard field goal with 7:51 to go in regulation and seemed headed for its first win against a team with a winning record this season.
But the Ravens converted on fourth-and-29 from their 37 when Ray Rice caught a short pass from Joe Flacco and weaved through the defense to the San Diego 33 with 1:37 to play. After a review, the ball was moved back to the 34 and the refs measured. The new spot gave the Ravens a first down by the length of the ball.
Six plays later, Tucker kicked a 38-yard field goal to tie the game as regulation expired.
The Ravens (9-2) won their fourth straight and for the eighth time in nine games. The Chargers (4-7) were pushed closer to being eliminated from the playoff picture.
RAMS 31, CARDINALS 17
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Janoris Jenkins became the first player in Rams history and the first NFL rookie since 1960 to return two interceptions for touchdowns in the same game and St. Louis dominated the second half to hand the Arizona Cardinals their seventh loss in a row, 31-17 on Sunday.
Arizona rookie Ryan Lindley was intercepted four times in his first NFL start.
Jenkins’ returns of 36 and 39 yards emphatically ended the Rams’ streak of five straight games without an opponent turnover.
Sam Bradford had a pair of 37-yard touchdown passes — to Lance Kendricks and Chris Givens — for the Rams (4-6-1), who snapped a five-game winless streak and beat Arizona (4-7) for the second time this season.
The Rams’ Steven Jackson rushed for 139 yards in 24 carries.
GIANTS 38, PACKERS 10
EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — So much for that tired arm for Eli Manning, and that offensive slump for the New York Giants. They got it fixed in their bye week, then routed the Green Bay Packers 38-10 Sunday night.
The Packers certainly can attest to New York’s turnaround following a week off. The showcase game was decided early as the Giants outscored the Packers 31-10 in the opening half and cruised. Manning reached 200 career TD passes by throwing for three scores as New York (7-4) snapped a two-game slide, ended Green Bay’s five-game winning streak, and opened a two-game lead in the NFC East.
The Packers (7-4) were missing such key starters as linebacker Clay Matthews, defensive back Charles Woodson and receiver Greg Jennings, and it showed as they fell one game behind NFC North leader Chicago. After being manhandled in last season’s playoffs by the Giants, who went on to win the Super Bowl, the Packers weren’t much more competitive this time. Aaron Rodgers was sacked five times, including twice by Mathias Kiwanuka, who spent much of the game at defensive tackle rather than in his usual linebacker spot.
New York’s balanced attack was guided by Manning, who had his first strong game in a month with 249 yards passing, and Ahmad Bradshaw, who gained a combined 119 yards and scored a touchdown. He had the first big play of the night to begin the offensive onslaught.
New York struck early with a brilliantly conceived screen pass to Bradshaw off a fake reverse to Victor Cruz. Bradshaw sped down the field before being caught at the Green Bay 2, a 59-yard pickup that led to Andre Brown’s scoring run.
Green Bay didn’t flinch, with Jordy Nelson getting behind Corey Webster in single coverage down the right sideline for a 61-yard TD reception from Rodgers.
The scoring flurry went back in the Giants’ favor — and pretty much stayed there — when Manning hit rookie Rueben Randle in the back of the end zone for a 16-yard TD, Randle’s first NFL score. It was Manning’s first touchdown throw in four games, and he set it up with, of all things, a scramble in which he laid his shoulder into Packers cornerback Tramon Williams for a 13-yard gain.
Webster’s interception led to Lawrence Tynes’ 43-yard field goal late in the first quarter for a 17-7 lead, and the Giants weren’t nearly done. Manning’s 9-yard connection with Cruz tied him for the club record with 199 career TD passes, and after Osi Umenyiora’s strip-sack of Rodgers was recovered by Jason Pierre-Paul at the Green Bay 23, Bradshaw scored from the 13.
The 31 points were the most New York scored in a half all season and nearly equaled the 33 it scored in its two losses before the bye.