The greatest Super Bowl ever played. The blackout that changed history. The kid who bested Montana. Oh how the stories just write themselves.
For a night, seven continents were cheering the San Francisco 49ers as they stood just 20 feet from doing the unthinkable. Who didn't want to see Colin Kaepernick running into the end zone to cap off the most amazing comeback the world has ever seen? The image of him smooching his biceps after scoring the game-winning TD would have made the background of every cell phone and every tablet in the western hemisphere.
But it wasn't meant to be. Instead, all of America switched off their televisions as soon as the image of Ray Lewis appeared on the screen.
What happened? Just moments earlier, the 49ers offense looked unstoppable. Kaepernick was throwing perfect passes in every direction across the field and Frank Gore, so slow to start off the game, was slicing through the Ravens defensive line like a killer robot with laser graters.
After Gore had just broken off another incredible 19-yard run, San Francisco had the ball at the Baltimore 7-yard line and looked primed to take their first lead of the game. The only challenge was not getting into the end zone too early so Flacco wouldn't have enough time to rally his offense.
Then Gore came off the field and the Niners inexplicably abandoned the read-option which they effectively used to torment their opponents throughout the entire playoffs. LaMichael James took the next handoff up the middle and was stopped after a two-yard gain. San Francisco then let the clock run down to the two-minute warning and their momentum had suddenly stalled.
What followed next was nauseating.
Incomplete to Crabtree at the edge of the end zone.
Incomplete to Crabtree short of the end zone.
Incomplete to Crabtree at the edge of the end zone.
The 49ers essentially ran the same play three times, trying to force a tight pass to Michael Crabtree in the weak spot of the field. The exhausted and desperate Ravens defense swarmed and held the receiver multiple times and got away with it each time.
Drive over, game over. Or was it? The 49ers had one more chance to tackle Ravens punter Sam Koch in the end zone but couldn't reach him because they were being held by the Baltimore special teams. As a result, Koch was able to take more time off the clock and the Niners lost another play.
In situations like these, it's human nature to assign blame.
But should the officials be singled out?
A hold is a hold, regardless of the situation. NFL rules clearly state that a defensive back can't make contact with the receiver after five yards. Since the 49ers had the ball on the 5-yard line, it doesn't take a physicist to figure out that there can't be any contact in the end zone. Reed latched onto Crabtree briefly with one arm before the receiver was able to push him off.
Phil Simms claimed that referees rarely make pass-interference calls on the final play of the game and it is the receiver's job to make the catch under the circumstances. What Phil doesn't understand is there's only so much a receiver can do if his adversary is allowed to do everything short of putting a guillotine choke to force an incomplete.
Predictably, Harbaugh wasted no time ripping the officiating, which had been porous throughout much of the the game. The best example came during a scrum in the first half, where cornerback Carey Williams wasn't penalized after blatantly shoving a referee (making deliberate contact with any official is grounds for an automatic ejection).
It's clear that Harbaugh's reaction wasn't just frustration at the no-call, but bitterness at the outcome. Niners fan across the nation, who had never witnessed their team lose a Super Bowl, also spent most of the night in stunned disbelief.
But Harbaugh and his offensive coordinator Greg Roman deserve an equal share of blame for bungling the final drive. With four shots to gain seven yards, the 49ers had all sorts of options to put the ball in the end zone. Instead, Harbaugh relentlessly kept calling passes into double coverage, none of which had a realistic chance of getting reeled in.
Kaepernick and Gore never ran once with the ball despite the fact that the Ravens' wobbly defense was missing its primary run-stuffer, Haloti Ngata. The 49ers were also forced to burn a timeout when they were unable to get set at the line of scrimmage before the play clock expired, an occurrence which has become too familiar with Niners fans this season.
Plus, if Michael Crabtree doesn't knock away a potential touchdown pass to a wide-open Randy Moss, the 49ers special teams actually tries to tackle Jacoby Jones, LaMichael James goes down on the ground before fumbling the ball and Chris Culliver actually touches a wide receiver on the grass instead of leaping over him, the 49ers may have never have found themselves in a predicament where they needed a broken light bulb and a last-second touchdown to win the game.
Ironically, the only player who seemed to play a perfect game was David Akers, and even he received a mulligan after he was run into on a missed field-goal attempt (another botched call by the officials as it should have been whistled for a 15-yard penalty and an automatic first down).
In the end, Harbaugh and his team has to take responsibility for their own loss. While I didn't have too much of a problem with him making the sign language sign for "the refs are screwing me!" on the sidelines, he can't single out the miscues of the officiating without taking some of the blame himself. Same goes for the players.
While the Niners were the better team, the Ravens played the better game.
That's the reason why the ending of this Super Bowl was a letdown. Glory only comes with greatness.
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