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February 3, 2013
Harbaugh cries foul as 49ers comeback ends five yards short


NEW ORLEANS - The biggest deficit overcome by a Super Bowl champion is 10 points.

The 49ers came within five yards of obliterating that mark on Sunday in the most wrenching, roller-coaster and oddball championship game in recent memory but in the end couldn't quite topple the Ravens or the pile of mistakes that kept stacking up in the first half.

Three straight passes from Colin Kaepernick to favorite target Michael Crabtree in the last two minutes - including a final, fourth-down attempt with a Ravens defender clinging to Crabtree - fell incomplete, turning the ball over to Baltimore, which held on for a 34-31 win.

Afterward Jim Harbaugh said he wanted to handle the loss and his brother John's victory with "class and grace" but also said the Ravens should have been flagged for a pass-interference penalty against Crabtree on second down and for holding on the fourth-down play.

"Our guys battled back to get back in it," Harbaugh said. "We competed and battled to win. Yes, there's no question in my mind that there was a pass interference and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one."

Kaepernick finished with 302 yards passing, both Vernon Davis and Crabtree had more than 100 yards receiving and Frank Gore rushed for 110 yards. It was the first time in Super Bowl history a team had that combination. But it also was the second straight year the 49ers' finale ended with a barrage of errors.

This time they came not at the end but in the first half, beginning on the opening play from scrimmage - a 20-yard pass to Davis - that was wiped away by an illegal formation penalty.

They only grew worse from there.

The most iconic play of the first half involved nickel cornerback Chris Culliver, who had the roughest run-up to the Super Bowl of any player when he told a radio disc jockey that gays weren't welcome in the 49ers locker room and then was all but pinned and dissected by the media.

The Ravens tested Culliver throughout, completing a 30-yard pass against him in the first quarter and then scoring a 56-yard touchdown - the longest play the 49ers allowed this season - in the second quarter.

Culliver not only allowed receiver Jacoby Jones to sprint past him, he failed to touch Jones after he had fallen to the turf. Jones got up and outran the pursuing 49ers defense into the end zone.

"We put ourselves in a hole," cornerback Carlos Rogers said. "We fought back and the offense drove down and didn't put it in. But it's not on them, it's on us. They put up too many points on our defense, and we didn't get them off the field when we needed to."

Trailing 21-6 and needing a strong opening to the second half, the 49ers instead allowed Jones to take the kickoff 108 yards into their end zone, the longest kick return ever in a Super Bowl. The 49ers trailed by 22 points, and the type of blowout that once was common in Super Bowls appeared to be in the making.

Shortly thereafter, however, the Mercedez-Benz Superdome was hit with a 34-minute power outage, and the 49ers became recharged.

"We had a power outage against Pittsburgh last year, and we came out on fire," left tackle Joe Staley recalled. "I was excited. I never felt uncomfortable in the game, I never felt un-confident. I felt we were going to make that a game, that it would come down to the end."

Kaepernick, meanwhile, threw an interception in the first half and missed a wide open receiver in the end zone early in the game. After the outage, however, the quarterback renown for his bounce-back ability began playing like he did in playoff wins over Green Bay and Atlanta.

He hit Crabtree for a 31-yard touchdown and then helped set up a six-yard touchdown run by Gore.

As self destructive as the 49ers were in the first half, Gore's touchdown put them only one score behind Baltimore, and the two teams would joust from that point fourth.

Early in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick found Randy Moss for a 32-yard gain, the longest pass of the game for the 49ers and one of two catches for Moss. Two plays after that, Kaepernick broke loose around left end and scampered into the end zone for a 15-yard score.

The two-point attempt to tie the game - a throw to Moss - was incomplete and proved to be a harbinger of the 49ers final push toward the end zone.

After a Ravens field goal gave Baltimore a five-point lead, the 49ers took over at their own 20-yard line with 4:19 remaining. Kaepernick scrambled for a first down, hit Crabtree over the middle for 24 yards and then handed the ball off to Gore.

He burst through a hole and finally was shoved out of bounds at the Ravens 7-yard line after a 33 yard gain. There was 2:47 left at that point, and the 49ers had four chances to take the lead.

"We felt we were going to win the football game," said safety Donte Whitner. "We got down to the 5 yard line. With the quarterback we have, with the offense we have, we thought we'd punch it in."

Kaepernick, however, was bottled up and never got a chance to use his legs near the end zone. On first down, running back LaMichael James gained two yards. On the next three, the physical Ravens defense - too physical, according to Jim Harbaugh - made sure that Crabtree didn't catch the ball.

"Five yards short," Staley said. "All the work we did in the offseason, the whole entire season, everything came down to five yards, and we weren't able to get it done."

-- Matt Barrows


Matt was born in Blacksburg, Va., and attended the University of Virginia. He graduated in 1995, went to Northwestern for a journalism degree a year later, and got his first job at a South Carolina daily in 1997. He joined The Bee as a Metro reporter in 1999 and started covering the 49ers in 2003. His favorite player of all time is Darrell Green.


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