NEW ORLEANS -- Helmet in hand, Deuce McAllister jogged triumphantly into the tunnel of the Louisiana Superdome past celebrating Saints fans howling his name. Then came another thrill.
McAllister's childhood idol, former San Francisco running back Roger Craig, called to congratulate him on his first validating performance since his second knee reconstruction.
"I talked to my hero," McAllister said. "He told me he was proud of me."
San Francisco's shaky run defense had trouble stopping McAllister's power running and New Orleans avoided an early-season hole with a 31-17 victory on Sunday.
The Saints' all-time leading rusher hardly looked like he was playing on two reconstructed knees when he bowled over tacklers for first downs, moved the pile or dived over it for his first touchdown of the season.
"I'm sure a lot of people weren't giving him a chance to come back," Saints quarterback Drew Brees said. "He proved a lot of people wrong."
McAllister carried 20 times for 73 yards and had a 10-yard reception to convert a third down.
"I can still play another quarter," McAllister quipped when asked about his left knee, which was surgically repaired last fall. "The important question is, how is it feeling in the morning? ... I didn't take any true shots on it. Right now it feels pretty good."
McAllister, who also had right knee reconstruction in 2005, gave the Saints the credible power running threat they needed to open up deep throws for Brees, who certainly knows how to cash in on those.
Brees was 23-of-35 for 363 yards and three scores, including touchdowns of 47 yards to Robert Meachem and 33 yards to Lance Moore. Brees also set up scores with a 52-yard pass to Meachem on a flea flicker involving McAllister, and an 81-yard connection with Devery Henderson. Brees did all of this with two top receivers, Marques Colston (thumb) and tight end Jeremy Shockey (abdomen), unable to play.
"We anticipated [McAllister] playing," San Francisco coach Mike Nolan said. "He did a good job, but the things that hurt us the most were the explosive plays we gave up."
In close losses at Washington and Denver, the Saints (2-2) were stuffed on a half-dozen short-yardage situations. Saints fans flooded call-in shows with complaints about coach Sean Payton's reluctance to play McAllister, who'd had only two carries -- but gained 5 yards on each -- during the opening three weeks.
Payton said he was trying to be cautious and would play the 29-yard-old McAllister when the time was right. With San Francisco allowing an average of 131 yards rushing coming in, this was the right time.
"It was great to see Deuce back in there," Payton said. "We just felt by the nature of the game plan that this week we had a chance to run the ball a little bit more.
"Those were some tough yards that he was getting for us."
J.T. O'Sullivan was 18-of-36 for 257 yards, but continued to take too many sacks. Having been sacked 13 times through the Niners' first three games, O'Sullivan was brought down six more times, twice by Charles Grant. Three of those sacks helped the Saints limit the Niners to field goals.
O'Sullivan fumbled in 49ers territory on one early sack, setting up the Saints' first touchdown.
Frank Gore averaged 5.1 yards per run, but San Francisco (2-2) was forced to pass more after falling behind by multiple scores and Gore finished with 82 yards. The Niners hardly looked like a team coming off two straight victories over Seattle and Detroit.
"It was kind of a reverse of the last game," Nolan said. "There's really no one I can point out that played well."
San Francisco led in the first quarter on Joe Nedney's 47-yard field goal.
McAllister rushed four times for 22 yards on the Saints' next drive before Brees found Moore behind the secondary to make it 14-3.
Nedney's 49-yard field goal pulled San Francisco to 14-6, but New Orleans wasn't done. Brees found tight end Billy Miller for 18 yards, then unloaded his long scoring pass to Meachem, who got behind Mark Roman and used body position to prevent the safety from breaking up the slightly underthrown ball. That gave the Saints a 21-6 lead at halftime.
San Francisco was 0-for-5 on third downs during the first half, 3-of-10 overall. ... Saints rookie DT Sedrick Ellis had his first career sack. ... San Francisco's defense had not allowed more than 182 yards passing in any of its first three games. ... Moore's 101 yards receiving and two TDs were career highs. ... New Orleans has won five straight against San Francisco.