NEW ORLEANS — The biggest deficit overcome by a Super Bowl champion is 10 points.
The 49ers came within five yards of obliterating that mark Sunday night in the most wrenching, roller-coaster and oddball championship game in recent memory. But in the end, they couldn’t quite topple the Baltimore Ravens or their pile of mistakes that kept growing in the first half.
Three consecutive passes from Colin Kaepernick to favorite target Michael Crabtree in the last two minutes — including a final fourth-down attempt with a Ravens defender clinging to Crabtree — fell incomplete, turning the ball over to Baltimore, which held on for a 34-31 win.
Afterward, 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said he wanted to handle the loss and his brother John’s victory with “class and grace.” But he also said the Ravens should have been flagged for pass interference against Crabtree on second down and for holding on fourth down.
“Our guys battled back to get back in it,” Harbaugh said. “We competed and battled to win. Yes, there’s no question in my mind that there was a pass interference and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one.”
It was the second straight year the 49ers’ season ended with a barrage of errors.
This time the gaffes came not at the end but in the first half, beginning on the opening play from scrimmage — a 20-yard pass to Vernon Davis — that was wiped out by an illegal formation penalty.
They only grew worse. The most iconic play of the first half involved nickel cornerback Chris Culliver, who had the roughest run-up to the Super Bowl of any player when he told a radio disc jockey that gays weren’t welcome in the 49ers’ locker room and then was all but pinned and dissected by the media.
The Ravens tested Culliver throughout. Super Bowl MVP Joe Flacco completed a 30-yard pass against him in the first quarter and threw a 56-yard touchdown pass to Jacoby Jones — the longest play the 49ers allowed this season — with Culliver defending in the second quarter.
Culliver not only allowed Jones to sprint past him, he failed to touch Jones after Ravens receiver had fallen to the turf. Jones got up and outran the 49ers’ pursuing defense into the end zone.
“We put ourselves in a hole,” cornerback Carlos Rogers said. “We fought back, and the offense drove down and didn’t put it in. But it’s not on them. It’s on us. They put up too many points on our defense, and we didn’t get them off the field when we needed to.”
Trailing 21-6 and needing a strong opening to the second half, the 49ers instead allowed Jones to return the kickoff 108 yards for a touchdown, the longest ever in a Super Bowl. The 49ers now trailed by 22 points, and the type of blowout that once was common in Super Bowls appeared to be in the making.
Shortly thereafter, however, the Superdome was hit with a 34-minute power outage, and the 49ers became recharged.
“We had a power outage against Pittsburgh last year, and we came out on fire,” left tackle Joe Staley recalled. “I was excited. I never felt uncomfortable in the game. I never felt unconfident. I felt we were going to make that a game, that it would come down to the end.”
Kaepernick had thrown an interception in the first half and missed a wide-open receiver in the end zone early in the game. After the outage, however, the quarterback renowned for his bounce-back ability began playing like he did in playoff wins over Green Bay and Atlanta.
He hit Crabtree for a 31-yard touchdown and helped set up a six-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore.
As self-destructive as the 49ers were in the first half, Gore’s touchdown put them only one score behind, and the two teams would joust from that point.
Early in the fourth quarter, Kaepernick found Randy Moss for a 32-yard gain, the 49ers’ longest pass of the game and one of two catches for Moss. Two plays later, Kaepernick broke loose around left end and scampered into the end zone for a 15-yard score.
But the two-point attempt to tie the score — a throw to Moss — was incomplete and proved to be a harbinger of the 49ers’ final push toward the end zone.
After a field goal gave Baltimore a five-point lead, the 49ers took over at their own 20-yard line with 4:19 remaining. Kaepernick scrambled for a first down, hit Crabtree over the middle for 24 yards and then handed off to Gore. He burst through a hole and finally was shoved out of bounds at the Ravens’ 7-yard line after a 33-yard gain.
There was 2:47 left at that point, and the 49ers had four chances to take the lead.
“We felt we were going to win the football game,” safety Donte Whitner said. “We got down to the 5-yard line. With the quarterback we have, with the offense we have, we thought we’d punch it in.”
Kaepernick, however, was bottled up and never got a chance to use his legs near the end zone. On first down, LaMichael James gained two yards. On the next three, the physical Ravens defense — too physical, according to Jim Harbaugh — made sure that Crabtree didn’t catch the ball.
“Five yards short,” 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.”