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NEW ORLEANS -- This is how the 49ers came to diminish their season Sunday. They complained about the officials. That's not a good way to close the book.

The 49ers should have taken the tough defeat, 34-31, and absorbed the urge to complain. They should have said they came up short. They should have said they put themselves in a hole and couldn't fully extricate themselves. They should have said they gave it a gallant try, to come back from the interception, fumble, the penalties, trailing by 22 points at one point. They should have said all that.

They even could have spoken of that questionable playing on their last three offensive plays of the game, and more on that later.

But with the defeat no more than 30 minutes old, their focal point lasered on the their last two offensive plays. With 1:55 left in the game and the Ravens leading 34-29, the 49ers found themselves with a third and goal on Baltimore's 5-yard-line.

Quarterback Colin Kaepernick threw an incomplete pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree. Niners coach Jim Harbaugh thought Crabtree was held at the line of scrimmage by Ravens defensive back Jimmy Smith.

On fourth and goal, Kaepernick threw another pass to Crabtree, a floater. Crabtree and Smith were both grabbing each other as Crabtree was running his route. The pass sailed just beyond Crabtree's fingertips. Harbaugh immediately went Harbaugh on the Niners' sideline. He grabbed his right wrist with his left hand and yelled holding to the officials.

"I didn't even get an explanation of that (call)," Harbaugh said. "I thought those two plays were very similar."

In that respect, Harbaugh was right. Both pass attempts were very much alike, so much alike that in describing both of them is to come to the same conclusion that NBA officials do late in their games. Unless the call is flagrant and obvious, you let the players play the game and decide it. On both non-calls, the two players did the same thing — they were fighting for territory. Smith didn't throw Crabtree to the ground, spin him around or even give a good yank.

The right call was made on both of them.

What should be of more interest to Niner fans — and this was certainly of interest to two Ravens players — was Harbaugh's play calling on his team's three plays. All were passes from Kaepernick standing in the pocket. Baltimore outside linebacker Paul Kruger said he was surprised he didn't see Kaepernick run to either side of the field, to spread the Ravens defense.

After all, Kaepernick is a unique weapon, the one variable in this game that made San Francisco a favorite coming into the Super Bowl. He can be just a decoy, just pretending to run, but as Atlanta and Green Bay have seen in the playoffs, just offering that as a threat was enough to make Kruger and the Ravens defense skittish.

It wasn't as if Kaepernick didn't have success on the ground. He had run seven times for 62 yards in the game. Four of those runs were for first downs, with one of them a touchdown. So why not spread the defense instead of having this threat sit in the pocket?

"Well, we did have one play in there," Harbaugh said.

It certainly was a mystery play, for Kaepernick never left the pocket. He was a sitting duck and that fourth-down floater over Crabtree was the result of Kaepernick just about to be crushed by Baltimore.

Frank Gore's number wasn't called, either, and again that was curious. Gore had run for 110 yards on 19 carries. Got a touchdown out of it and an observation after the game from Baltimore defensive tackler Haloti Ngata. Ngata didn't understand why Harbaugh didn't call on Gore.

Harbaugh's explanation?

"We had other plays called," he said.

Fair enough. Harbaugh doesn't have to explain anything, but it would have been appropriate to have explained this: Why did a coach who specializes in keeping defenses off balance, who likes to surprise defenders with his play calling, get so conservative with the season on the line?

Sure, Harbaugh had faith in Kaepernick and Crabtree. That much is obvious. What isn't obvious, however, is how that confidence blinded this very creative offensive mind when the 49ers needed him most?

Instead, Harbaugh was more willing to talk about getting jobbed by the officials instead of focusing on what really impacted the game — repeating himself on three consecutive plays with the same two players.

The 49ers had a magnificent season and should take pride in that, and ignore what passes for conventional wisdom.

"Nobody remembers who loses the Super Bowl," 49ers Hall of Fame receiver Jerry Rice said.

That doesn't have to be true. This is one of those Super Bowls, Colin Kaepernick is definitely ready for prime time, a long career in the offing ... and there's the defense and Frank Gore and, well, you know the drill. The hope here is that Harbaugh allows his team to reflect upon this season fondly, allowing them to take away much more of the good than the bad. The same should be true of Harbaugh with, of course, a little more reflection from him on those last three offensive plays of the season.

Super Bowl XLVII will be, the bet here is, a learning experience for everyone, including the incredibly bright and usually creative head coach.

You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or bob.padecky@pressdemocrat.com.