A football game is never won or lost on one play, but Ahmad Brooks' personal foul penalty late in the fourth quarter has become the target of ire after Sunday's three-point defeat in New Orleans.
"When we grade a player, when he's got a penalty we give him a minus," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh explained in Monday's aftermath. "But we did not assign a minus on that play. That was our interpretation."
Brooks' hit on Drew Brees that forced a fumble with 3:18 left in the game could have sealed the victory for the underdog San Francisco 49ers. But officials deemed his right arm was too close to the quarterback's neck and flagged Brooks for a personal foul, negating the change of possession. The 49ers had a three-point lead at the time.
"I thought he made a great play and didn't get the result," Harbaugh said.
"I thought Ahmad hit at the right level, hit at the shoulder level. The quarterback kind of shrunk down. That's the official's call to make. I'm going to see it the way I see it. That's going to be a slanted view."
The penalty gave the Saints a fresh set of downs at San Francisco's 30-yard line. And five plays later, they tied the game on one of Garrett Hartley's three fourth-quarter field goals.
The Saints would go on to win the game as they took advantage of more late mistakes from San Francisco, including Colin Kaepernick's decision to go out of bounds on a third-down play and Kassim Osgood's 15-yard catch interference penalty on Darren Sproles after he fielded a punt.
At 6-4, the 49ers find themselves in a unique position under Harbaugh. For the first time since he took over, they are not in the NFC west driver's seat. They fell to 3.5 games behind first-place Seattle with just six weeks left, putting hopes of a third-straight division title to bed.
In Harbaugh's first season, the 49ers were 9-1 through Week 11. Last year, they were 7-2-1. Instead of the comfort of being atop the standings in the conference, Harbaugh's team is in the unfamiliar position of being the "hunter" rather than the "hunted."
"It's the situation that we're in. For us, it's always the next game. That's the most important game," Harbaugh said. "There's some adversity with the club. I have always saw that as an opportunity to show the medal of your team."
Prior to this season, the 49ers have stayed remarkably healthy and haven't had many off-the-field distractions to take away from success between the lines. Things had been noticeably smooth at 4949 Centennial Blvd.
But that's changed with Michael Crabtree's torn Achilles and Aldon Smith's troubled early portion of the year.
"Adversity? Yes we got that," Harbaugh said. You always look at that as an opportunity to show the steel in the spine. That's what we're going to have to do."
San Francisco's offense struggled again Sunday, getting out-gained by New Orleans 387 to 196. The passing game remains one of the NFL's worst, averaging a league-low 168 yards per game.
Part of those struggles are a product of the massive turnover at tight end and receiver. In the Super Bowl loss to the Ravens, Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss, Vernon Davis and Delanie Walker were the team's only players to catch passes. Of that group, Davis is the lone holdover catching balls from Kaepernick this season.
The 49ers have seen numerous wideouts come and go since the start of the offseason program. And given how pass catchers' success is a product of timing and chemistry more than any other position, the turnover has hurt San Francisco's offense in 2013.
"I'm sure you could make that argument...as it relates to the passing game," Harbaugh said. "Got some new guys coming back to the roster and look forward to them getting back up to speed, getting that precision. That's what you're chasing there."
Harbaugh said Crabtree's status for next Monday night's game in Washington is still up in the air. But he wouldn't rule out the possibility of his No. 1 wideout making his debut on the national stage.
"We'll see. A lot of that's going to depend on getting out there every day practicing and how much of a load he can do," said Harbaugh. "I think he's close."
The 49ers will travel cross country for a second-straight week to play the Redskins, hoping to end their second losing streak of the season. The team had not suffered consecutive defeats at any point during Harbaugh's first two years at the helm.
"The mindset is, you don't win the game, you're not going to feel great. And you don't feel good. As a coach, if you want to feel better, coach better. That's what I tell myself," Harbaugh said.
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