ImageIn a Super Bowl game which featured a 34-minute in-game delay due to a stadium power loss, the San Francisco 49ers ultimately found themselves powerless to avoid the franchise’s first loss on football’s biggest stage.

The 49ers battled valiantly back from what had been a 22-point second-half deficit before bogging down in a goal-to-go situation with just under two minutes to play. On a last-gasp fourth-and-goal try from the Baltimore five-yard-line, first-year starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick heaved a touch pass into the right corner of the end zone only to see it drift beyond the reach of Michael Crabtree’s outstretched arms.

While the Baltimore Ravens celebrated what would prove to be the game-clinching play, Crabtree and head coach Jim Harbaugh stood incredulous at the lack of a penalty for defensive holding. Several replays unequivocally showed Ravens defensive back Jimmy Smith with a fist full of Crabtree’s jersey as they crossed the goal line (not surprisingly, no pictures are available). Crabtree was not able to break free in time to reach Kaepernick’s well-thrown timing route.

A rightful flag for defensive holding would have given the 49ers a fresh set of downs from the Ravens’ one-yard-line, and all-but-certainly would have allowed them to (at least temporarily) take a lead. There was no flag forthcoming, however. The 49ers held just one timeout, allowing the Ravens to anticlimactically salt nearly all the remaining time away by conceding a meaningless safety before ending the game on a free kick.

A fairy tale season had come to a gut-wrenching end for the second straight year, but this one was particularly tough to swallow.

It would have been easier had NaVorro Bowman never knocked down Matt Ryan’s fourth-down pass to lift the 49ers into the Super Bowl.

It would have been easier had—just as many pundits predicted—David Akers missed a potential game-winning field goal or Kaepernick’s bravado and confidence had melted under the hot lights of the Super Bowl (at least until half of them went out).

ImageThe 49ers would have had only themselves to blame for such miscues. But none of that happened—Akers was officially perfect on the day and Kaepernick played admirably despite some early struggles. Instead, the outcome swung on an official’s decision not to call a particularly blatant infraction having previously penalized the 49ers on far more tenuous grounds. As the purple and gold confetti rained from the Superdome rafters and Ray Lewis basked in his career-capping “achievement,” every 49er player, coach, trainer, and fan couldn’t help but wonder about the call that should have been.

Bear in mind that there was plenty of blame to go around for the loss. The officials didn’t fumble inside the opposing 30-yardline in the first half with a chance to take the lead. The officials didn’t play uncharacteristically lax pass defense throughout the game. The officials didn’t lose containment on the second-half-opening kick return and allow what appeared to be a back-breaking, record-tying touchdown return. The officials didn’t waste an early timeout in the second-half, one which could have been instrumental in the closing minute.

Nonetheless, the most frustrating part of the loss was that the 49ers came within feet of overcoming all that. A defensive holding penalty may not have won the game for the 49ers, but it almost certainly would have seen them take the lead and given their defense one last chance at redemption.

Instead, the final ticks slipped away with the Ravens milking the clock and after a mid-field handshake that had all the congeniality of a forced corporate takeover, Jim Harbaugh and his players could only speak in veiled references through gritted teeth in grim post-game press conferences about the game’s controversial climax.

ImageThe 49ers and their coach have every reason to feel slighted by the way the game ended, but perhaps the officials gave them the greatest gift they could possibly receive.

Perhaps the alleviation of the silent pressure of defending a once-perfect Super Bowl legacy will allow the 49ers to play more loosely the next time.

Perhaps the feeling of being cheated out of a chance to win the game will add fuel to the fire driving their next trip to football’s biggest game.

Perhaps the team can use this frustration as a learning experience as they strive for future glory.

Then again, if the officials have any say, perhaps none of that will matter.

Keep the Faith!