San Francisco 49ers

Stumbling 49ers fall to Rams, fall behind in division race

A dejected Michael Crabtree returns to the huddle after a catch near the goal line that was not ruled a touchdown.
A dejected Michael Crabtree returns to the huddle after a catch near the goal line that was not ruled a touchdown. pkitagaki@sacbee.com

Colin Kaepernick insisted he scored a go-ahead touchdown on the 49ers’ final play with two seconds remaining. How is he so sure?

“I was looking in the end zone,” the 49ers’ quarterback said defiantly.

The officials, however, didn’t see it that way, a recurring theme in Sunday’s 13-10 loss to the St. Louis Rams that had three replay reviews on excruciatingly close, would-be scoring plays, none of which went in the home team’s favor.

As a result, the 49ers are 4-4 and sputtering at the midpoint of the season, a time in which previous Jim Harbaugh-coached teams have excelled. The 49ers fell three games behind the Arizona Cardinals (7-1) for the NFC West lead and also trail the Seattle Seahawks (5-3). The Rams are a game behind the 49ers at 3-5.

“We’ve got to suck it up,” Harbaugh said. “That was a tough loss. We’ve got to play better football. Coach better football. Better habits. Play better.”

Linebacker Michael Wilhoite agreed the 49ers were dealing with bad karma just as they were at the beginning of the season, when they were the most penalized team in the league.

“Maybe we just didn’t get the breaks today. Maybe we just didn’t get good luck,” he said. “Sometimes it happens like that. Good teams, great teams are going to fight through that, and they’re going to find a way to win. We didn’t do it today, and we’ve got to figure that out.”

Wilhoite, fellow inside linebacker Chris Borland and the rest of the 49ers’ defense mostly played well, limiting Rams quarterback Austin Davis to 105 passing yards and intercepting him twice.

But the offense was a disjointed mess, vacillating from a power-running attack to one that used four and five pass catchers and doing none of it well. The Rams entered the game with six sacks this season; Sunday, they had eight, the most Kaepernick has been sacked in his career.

Following an interception by safety Antoine Bethea in the second quarter, Kaepernick and the 49ers struck quickly. Rolling to his right, he found favorite target Anquan Boldin wide open in the middle of the field, and the receiver ran in for a 27-yard touchdown.

The 49ers went into halftime with 129 yards of offense and, they thought, a safety when the Rams’ Tavon Austin fielded a missed 49ers field-goal attempt and was tackled in the end zone when he tried to return it. The officials, however, ruled Austin brought the ball across the goal line and a 49ers defender tackled him back into the end zone, which is not a safety. Referee Jerome Boger said there was no replay angle that gave a definitive view, so the play was not overturned.

The second half was miserable for the 49ers.

One fourth-quarter possession began at their own 6-yard line after punt returner Bruce Ellington was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct for throwing the ball at an opponent. That was followed by back-to-back false starts by the 49ers and a sack of Kaepernick.

Andy Lee’s punt from deep in the end zone went off the side of his foot and traveled only 23 yards. It led to Greg Zuerlein’s 39-yard field goal that ended up being the decisive points, but not before two more controversial calls.

The 49ers got the ball for the last time with 3:11 remaining. Kaepernick hit Stevie Johnson and Boldin for big first downs, then drew a pass-interference call on a fade near the goal line to receiver Michael Crabtree. That put the 49ers at the St. Louis 5-yard line with 46 seconds remaining and led to two more plays Boger would review.

The first came on a short pass at the near corner of the end zone to Crabtree, who seemed to grab the ball as he was crossing the goal line while coming back toward the line of scrimmage. Boger ruled Crabtree caught the ball but that it was not a touchdown.

Kaepernick disagreed.

“I thought he was (in the end zone), but I have to make a better throw and then we don’t have to leave it up to the refs,” he said.

The 49ers called two more plays from the 1-yard line. The first was an incompletion. The final 49ers snap with nine seconds remaining was a quarterback keeper Kaepernick bobbled initially and gathered in as he and a pile of players surged into the end zone. When those players disbanded, Rams linebacker James Laurinaitis was holding the ball, and the officials ruled Kaepernick fumbled.

Fullback Bruce Miller was behind Kaepernick and was part of the group pushing the quarterback into the end zone.

“I thought the ball was secure,” he said. “I couldn’t really see what happened. I saw the ball come out late. I’m not sure (if you go) to the replay that you can even see what happened with all the guys piled up there.”

That was Boger’s assessment, too.

“On the last play, it went into a pile,” he said. “And there was nothing we could see that could change the ruling on the field.”

Read Matt Barrows’ blogs and archives at www.sacbee.com/sf49ers.

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