Bright future little consolation for 49ers

The 49ers squandered opportunities and could not get the final five yards in the fourth quarter. AP Foto/Evan Vucci

NEW ORLEANS -- Say this about the San Francisco 49ers: They can take a punch. They can take a lot of them, in fact. And if a power outage gives them 34 minutes to clear the cobwebs, look out. But it's tough to win a championship playing the way San Francisco did during this 34-31 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII.

It's tough to win a championship when allowing three first-half scoring passes and a kickoff return for a touchdown to open the third quarter. It's tough to win a championship when the opponent is converting nine times on third down, or after your second-year quarterback and rookie running back commit turnovers. It's tough to win a championship when committing key penalties and burning through timeouts.

49ers coach Jim Harbaugh pleaded for a holding call against the Ravens as Michael Crabtree struggled to get past cornerback Jimmy Smith on 4th-and-5 with 1:50 remaining, but officiating wasn't the difference in this game. Far from it. You can't blame the straw that broke the camel's back after building a three-story haystack on it first.

Harbaugh understandably wanted the call anyway.

"Yes, there's no question in my mind that there was a pass interference [on second down] and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one," he said.

Later, after answering a question about quarterback Colin Kaepernick's overall play, Harbaugh doubled back to the non-call.

"Again, in my opinion, that series should have continued," he said.

Mike Pereira, the former NFL officiating vice president and now a Fox analyst, said he agreed with the non-call.

Harbaugh wasn't finished with the officiating complaints. He also complained about an interference call against his own cornerback, Chris Culliver.

"You're talking about the one that extended their drive when they made their second-to-last drive with the ball?" he said. "Didn't think that was interference."

And when the Ravens ran seven of the final 11 seconds off the clock before taking a safety, Harbaugh wanted a holding penalty called.

"It's a good scheme on their part to hold as many people as they can, and you teach them just to tackle when you're taking a safety like that, but not one holding penalty was called," Harbaugh said.

Again, the officiating wasn't perfect, but neither was it the 49ers' biggest problem.

The Ravens were a step ahead of the 49ers in the red zone all night, not just when Smith restricted Crabtree with the game on the line.

Perhaps we should have seen that part of the matchup coming.

The Ravens' defense ranked second in red zone touchdown percentage allowed during the regular season. Kaepernick, though an overall upgrade from former starter Alex Smith, had completed just 51.4 percent of his passes in the red zone over the regular season and playoffs. Smith's completion rate in that area was 70.6 percent. The two quarterbacks had similar touchdown-to-interception ratios in the red zone. Kaepernick had provided another dimension as a runner, obviously. But when the 49ers needed to finish drives Sunday, Kaepernick could not complete passes.

The Ravens sacked Kaepernick twice and held him to four incompletions -- all intended for Crabtree -- on six red zone pass plays. Kaepernick got free for a 15-yard touchdown scramble on another red zone play.

The 49ers scored two touchdowns on six red zone possessions. They also failed to convert a two-point try while trailing 31-29 in the late going. Still, the red zone wasn't where the 49ers lost this game so much as it was where they failed to win it. Turnovers and defensive lapses got the 49ers into trouble early.

"Didn't play our best game," Harbaugh said.

Victory had not come easy for the 49ers lately. Injuries struck their top pass-rushers. Aldon Smith went a sixth consecutive game without a sack after collecting 19.5 during the previous 13. The 49ers' ability to cover deep passes, once a strength, suffered. Their special teams, a disappointment most of the season, conspired against them in this game, same as during the NFC Championship Game one year ago.

The 49ers have now lost playoff games in successive seasons as a betting favorite. They lost this game against Baltimore with a 300-yard passer (Kaepernick), a 100-yard rusher (Frank Gore) and two 100-yard receivers (Crabtree and Vernon Davis). Losing despite such production suggests the 49ers didn't do the things well-coached teams do to win.

There will be room to question the 49ers' play calling following this defeat. Haloti Ngata, the Ravens' massive defensive lineman, wondered why Gore didn't get the ball more frequently in the red zone. Harbaugh's explanation: "We had other plays called."

The 49ers wouldn't have won back-to-back NFC West titles while regularly setting franchise records for offense without Harbaugh and coordinator Greg Roman at the controls. But there were too many times Sunday when the Ravens summoned answers that continually eluded the 49ers.

"A little surprised," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said about the 4th-and-5 play call. "I guess they wanted to get the ball to Crabtree. It's tough. It's tough for the coaches being in that situation because anything they do, if it works, you're a genius, and if it doesn't, you messed it up."

How odd it was after the game to hear the Ravens crediting receivers coach Jim Hostler, overmatched as the 49ers offensive coordinator back in 2007, for adding a pump fake to the play quarterback Joe Flacco used to find Jacoby Jones for a 56-yard touchdown.

"I thought that's a pretty good idea," Ravens offensive coordinator Jim Caldwell said. "Then, we ended up running it, and Joe ended up buying enough time to get the ball out there to Jacoby."

Like Whitner said, you're a genius if it works.

Jacoby's touchdown reception staked Baltimore to a 21-3 lead in the second quarter. It made Flacco the second 49ers opponent in as many games to strike for three first-half scoring passes. Flacco finished the postseason with 11 scoring passes and zero interceptions. He was the best quarterback in this Super Bowl, even when under pressure. That was a surprise and counter to previous form.

The 49ers finished with a 468-367 advantage in total net yards. They had more first downs (23-21). But they couldn't get five yards when they had to have them.

"Very frustrating," left tackle Joe 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."

The 49ers should remain a playoff-caliber team for years to come. Their division rivals are gaining, however. Their most important defensive player, Justin Smith, turns 34 in September and will be coming off triceps surgery. Gore turns 30 in May.

There is no shame in losing a Super Bowl after overcoming nearly all of a 28-6 deficit. It's just tough squandering two prime chances in two seasons when there are no guarantees for the future. They don't hand out championship rings for having bright futures.