'I'm devastated, but I'm so proud of my guys'
Jacoby Jones returned the opening kickoff of the second half 108 yards for a touchdown, and a 28-6 Ravens lead. (USA TODAY IMAGES)
NEW ORLEANS -- It was generally agreed in the postgame din of the Louisiana Superdome that 49er coach Jim Harbaugh should have done something other than what he did in the final few plays of Super Bowl XLVII.
He shouldn’t have had Colin Kaepernick throw three difficult passes in succession (national consensus). He should have had Kaepernick run at least once (Twitter consensus). He should have run Frank Gore (Haloti Ngata). He should have run someone, anyone, at least one time (Joe Staley, sort of). He should have been more persuasive/manic with the officials when they didn’t call what he wanted (Jim Harbaugh, kind of).
[MAIOCCO: Controversial no-calls, play calls leave 49ers five yards short]
He should have done something other than he did. And that’s what happens in close Super Bowls – the decision at the end of the game is always at fault. And the 49ers’ inability to punch in the winning touchdown with three shots from the Baltimore 5-yard-line.
But in truth, the reason Baltimore won, 34-31, and why the 49ers lost, is because San Francisco did so few things well before the Superdome went all Candlesticky, and had too much to do against an equally game opponent after it.
In one of the strangest Super Bowls ever, Baltimore won the early rounds and then threw enough punches late to survive the new San Francisco Treat – stealing victory from the jaws of the other team’s mouth.
And while it doesn’t make as good a tale for the children as “Why wouldn’t Harbaugh let Kaepernick be Kaepernick?” or “ . . . Gore be Gore,” or even, “What the hell happened with the lights?” it is the truth.
“It wasn’t shocking,” linebacker NaVorro Bowman said of the Ravens’ big early lead, which held up despite San Francisco’s frantic second half rallies. “They just did great coming out playing. I’m just pissed off.”
Part of the reason for his anger was the noise from the adjoining interview room in the Superdome, where the Ravens were celebrating loudly into microphones, no one more demonstrably than . . . wait for it . . . Ray Lewis. Bowman nearly left in a fury before an NFL functionary convinced him to stay and answer questions about the galling events that had just transpired.
But the voices will linger in him all summer. The 49ers were five yards from glory, after being a million miles away. And while the five yards hurt, the million miles away part is the killer.
[INSTANT REPLAY: Ravens 34, 49ers 31]
“We were jacked up, they were jacked up,” guard Alex Boone said. “We thought we going to get some momentum going, and we didn’t.”
And the difference between halves?
“Nothing. We just went out and played like us. We had to stop shooting ourselves in the foot, and we did a good job of that in the second half, but we couldn’t put the ball in when we needed to.”
Indeed, while the Ravens scored on their first drive, a smart 51-yard drive that ended with a hellacious throw from Joe Flacco to Anquan Boldin at the goal post, the 49ers stalled in the Baltimore red zone and settled for a David Akers field goal. And that was only the appetizer for a bad half-hour and 11 seconds of uncharacteristically bad football.
• When the Ravens were forced to punt on their second drive, LaMichael James fumbled at the Baltimore 24.
• When the Ravens scored again on a one-yard throw from Flacco to Torrey Smith, Kaepernick threw a ball high and behind Randy Moss that was intercepted by Ed Reed.
• When Baltimore’s fake field goal attempt went bad because kicker Justin Tucker was tackled at the San Francisco 6 by Darcel McBath, the 49ers went three and out.
• And when Baltimore got its third touchdown on a 56-yard throw to Jacoby Jones that the now-notorious Chris Culliver turned into a complete hash, the 49ers’ last drive of the half stalled at the Baltimore nine-yard line because Gore couldn’t gain two yards on second down, and Kaepernick couldn’t do so on third, falling down almost meekly to save some time for Akers’ second field goal.
Then there was the Jones kickoff return to start the second half, a 108-yard sprint through the middle of the 49er kick team. Only McBath touched him, and Jones described it succinctly by saying only, “At one pop, it pops.”
And with the 49ers down 28-6 one play into the second half and surely dead to all but the most pedantic coroner, came their latest deus ex machina, the 34-minute power outage just as the 49ers were facing a third-and-13. In the interim the 49ers gathered themselves, and the Ravens just sort of gathered into a fetal ball.
It was the NFC title game against Atlanta all over again. The 49ers dismissed any idea of the blackout helping them, although there were unconfirmed reports of Jed York standing next to a Superdome transformer with a screwdriver and a maniacal smile on his mouth as he told police, “Who’s got it better than us? No-o-o-o-o-body.”
“Actually, everything that needed to be said had already been done in the locker room at halftime,” tight end Vernon Davis said. “I don’t know that anyone said much of anything during the blackout. In fact, there was more energy (in the locker room) against Atlanta, because if we lost that game, we would never have gotten here.”
The result, though, was still 17 unanswered 49er points, and the Ravens needed two Justin Tucker field goals just to maintain lead integrity down the stretch. The 49ers were, as Gore would say later, “the better team,” but they weren’t the better team for enough of the game. They banked on spirit in the face of adversity rather than the more traditional and effective early boot in the nethers, and even with those final five yards that will stick in their craw, nothing is guaranteed, even at the other team’s five.
Besides, this was Baltimore, a tougher, more experienced team than Atlanta or Green Bay before it. To be the king, you have to beat the king, and the 49ers made their task too hard by not being better at it early.
They won’t remember that part, of course. They’ll remember the comeback, the arguable no-calls on two of the final four plays from scrimmage and the Ravens’ collegiate wrestling blocking scheme on Koch’s safety near game’s end. As Michael Crabtree put it in resisting the temptation to grouse about the officials, “You just have to be a man about it.”
They’ll remember how close they came, and they will definitely remember Lewis wallowing in the Ravens’ triumph loudly and aggressively in the room next door. “This will all be motivation,” Staley said.
But it will all go wasted if they don’t also remember the part where they let the other team have 30 minutes of free football. And when the other team is Baltimore, with its wealth of coaching and playing experience, playing with that kind of explosive almost always means third-degree burns and a ringing in the ears that lasts an entire spring, summer and fall.