NEW ORLEANS - Jim Harbaugh, who nearly complained himself hoarse the last time he was in the Superdome, seemed to have plenty to be steamed about after another last-minute loss in New Orleans on Sunday.
Leading by three points late in the fourth quarter and needing a big third-down play against a driving Saints squad, the 49ers appeared to get just that when Ahmad Brooks blew around the Saints right tackle and knocked the ball from quarterback Drew Brees' grasp. Patrick Willis recovered it at San Francisco's 45-yard line with 3:18 left to play.
But as Brooks started to celebrate he noticed a yellow flag drop in from behind the play. The penalty was on him for illegal contact with the neck area of the quarterback. Instead of the 49ers getting the ball or even saddling New Orleans with a long, fourth-down field-goal attempt, the Saints were given a first down at the San Francisco 30-yard line.
Four plays later, Garrett Hartley tied the game with a 42-yard field goal. Then, following a three-and-out series by the 49ers, he won it, 23-20, on a 31-yard field goal as time expired. "The game could have gone in a totally different direction," Brooks said in front of his locker of the fourth-quarter penalty. "... We lost the game, and that's probably the reason why."
The loss not only put the 49ers three and a half games behind the Seahawks in the division, it dropped them into a tie with the Cardinals, Lions and Bears, all of which have 6-4 records. The Panthers also could go to 6-4 with a loss today against the Patriots.
"I'm proud of guys the way they fight," Harbaugh said after the game. "If we continue to fight like that, we're going to win games. We're going to win a lot of games."
The 49ers' offense, which managed only three field goals in last week's loss to Carolina, was better against the Saints. But some of the problems persisted, including two, three-and-out series at the end of the game. Meanwhile, both of the 49ers touchdowns were aided by takeaways deep in Saints territory.
The first occurred in the second quarter when New Orleans punt returner Lance Moore muffed a punt and Ray Ventrone pounced on the loose ball at the New Orleans 11-yard line. Two plays later, Colin Kaepernick connected in the end zone with Anquan Boldin on a back-shoulder pass, their first touchdown since Week 4.
In the third quarter, Brooks - who had an interception for a touchdown last year in New Orleans - nearly did the same when he thwarted a short dump-off attempt by Brees. Brooks intercepted the pass and returned it 22 yards to the Saints 22-yard line. On second and 16, Kaepernick rolled right, stepped back and found Vernon Davis alone for a 17-yard touchdown.
Even a 55-yard Phil Dawson field goal in the second quarter was set up by a turnover. A would-be interception and touchdown by Saints backup cornerback Corey White turned into a touchback for the 49ers after Kaepernick hustled to the pylon. With Kaepernick closing in, White fumbled the ball out of the side of the end zone, giving the 49ers the ball at their own 20-yard line.
But the fourth-quarter turnover that was taken away proved to be the difference. Replays showed Brooks avoiding helmet-to-helmet contact with Brees as he wrapped his right arm around Brees' upper torso. At that point, his arm slid up and under Brees' neck.
Brooks said the quarterback's mouth was bleeding after the play, but he called the penalty a "b.s. call." Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also said it was an incorrect call. "It was a big play for us - it would have been a big play for us," Willis said.
Nine months ago, Harbaugh was on the opposite sideline screaming for a holding call against the Ravens as three straight passes from Kaepernick to Michael Crabtree in the end zone landed incomplete and the 49ers fell in the Super Bowl.
This time Harbaugh had to watch as the defense held the NFC's highest scoring offense to 23 points and allowed one of the league's most prolific quarterback's to throw just one touchdown but still lost.
Said Willis: "There's no moral victories for us. Our goal is 17 points or less. And we let up 23."
-- Matt Barrows