Flag on Brooks dooms 49ers in 23-20 loss to Saints

Ahmad Brooks burst into the backfield and leveled Drew Brees,
forcing a lost fumble that he thought would seal a San Francisco
victory.

Then he noticed the dreaded yellow flag landing near the spot of
his big hit.

He knew the call was on him. Soon after, the defending NFC
champion 49ers let a second straight game slip away.

The New Orleans Saints capitalized on Brooks’ penalty with a
tying 42-yard field goal by Garrett Hartley, then won 23-20 on a
31-yard Hartley kick as time expired on Sunday.

Brooks was flagged for hitting Brees in the head and neck on a
violent sack that left Brees with blood on his chin. There was 3:12
left and the 49ers led 20-17.

”I was like, OK, here we go again,” Brooks said of his
animated reaction to the penalty. ”It was very frustrating. The
game could have gone a totally different direction that what it
went. I was just mad because that was a big play in the game. We
lost, and that’s probably the reason why.”

That wasn’t the only play the 49ers regretted after allowing to
the Saints to kick field goals on their last three possessions.
Following Hartley’s 21-yard field goal that cut New Orleans’
deficit to 20-17 with 7:50 left, wide-open San Francisco running
back Frank Gore dropped a pass from Colin Kaepernick with a blocker
in front of him and only one Saints defender on his side of the
field.

Gore was thinking 79-yard touchdown. His miscue turned it into a
third down, and the 49ers punted.

”I have to make that play,” Gore said. ”I’m a better player
than that. If I had made that play, we would have won the
game.”

A week after losing 10-9 to Carolina, San Francisco struggled
again on offense, finishing with 196 yards. Gore picked up 48 yards
on 13 carries. Kaepernick went 17 of 31 and passed for two
touchdowns but also was sacked three times and threw for only 127
yards. He scrambled three times for 25 yards.

His last run was a 16-yarder that came up just 3 yards short of
a first down on third-and-long with less than two minutes to
go.

That gave Brees all the time he needed to lead a game-winning
drive in regulation.

”You’re going to have games like this,” Brees said. ”You
still find way to win against a playoff-caliber opponent with a lot
at stake at this point in the season. That says a lot.”

No Super Bowl loser has returned to the Super Bowl the following
year since Buffalo in 1993, and the 49ers (6-4) have put themselves
in a tough position, falling three-and-a-half games behind division
rival Seattle.

”The greater the challenge, the greater the glory,” coach Jim
Harbaugh said. ”That’s the way I look at it. I’m proud of our guys
for the way they fight, and if we continue to do that, we’re going
to win a lot of games.”

Kaepernick’s best play might have come right after his worst, an
interception that had cornerback Corey White heading for the end
zone. Kaepernick chased him down inside the 5, and as White tried
to dive into the end zone, the ball flew out for a touchback.

”I just tried to do whatever I could do to stop him from
scoring,” Kaepernick said. ”I don’t know if I knocked it out, but
I made him make an effort that he wouldn’t have had to do
otherwise.”

The 49ers then drove for a 55-yard field goal by Phil Dawson,
taking a 10-7 lead.

New Orleans regained the lead at 14-10, thanks to Travaris
Cadet’s 82-yard kickoff return, which set up Jed Collins’ 1-yard
touchdown run.

But in the third quarter, Brees, scrambling right, tried to lob
a pass to Graham, only to have Brooks leap up and tip the ball to
himself for an interception he returned to the Saints 22.

Soon after, Vernon Davis’ 17-yard TD catch made it 17-14.

The 49ers could not hold on, although they kept pointing to
Brooks’ roughing-the-passer penalty as a tough break rather than a
self-inflicted mistake.

”I was going full speed, he was going full speed,” Brooks
said. ”Maybe could have tackled him lower, but I’m rushing around
the edge, turning the corner and trying to knock the ball out of
his hands.”

NOTES: Kaepernick has thrown for 150 yards or fewer in all four
of the 49ers’ losses. .. Harbaugh had no concrete update on the
status of injured guard Mike Iupati, who exited with a left knee
injury in the third quarter, or cornerback Tarell Brown, who left
with a rib contusion in the second quarter. . Marques Colston
finished with five catches for 80 yards to become the Saints’
all-time leader in yards receiving with 7,923, passing Eric
Martin’s two-decade-old mark of 7,854.

AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org