You're going to be tempted to blame the 49ers' 23-20 road loss to the New Orleans Saints on the momentum-changing personal foul call on Ahmad Brooks. Resist the urge. That's just the illusion talking.
It may try to soothe you with hopes of Michael Crabtree coming back, of Colin Kaepernick returning to sensational, and everything will be fine. The illusion is tricky that way.
Suck it up and face reality: These 49ers are NOT who you thought they were.
If you still think this team is a contender in the NFC West, the illusion has you captured. If you're still mentioning San Francisco and Super Bowl in the same sentence, blow your nose and check for pixie dust.
The 49ers, losers of two straight for the second time this season, are 6-4 after Sunday's loss at New Orleans. Formerly a popular pick as the league's best team, Jim Harbaugh's crew is stuck in the mire of NFL mediocrity with the likes of Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia and Arizona.
Catching Seattle for the division title is pretty much a pipe dream. Home-field advantage in the first round is looking like a reach. At this point, talk of playoffs requires faith.
Who's got it better than us? Um, half the NFC.
"Our ultimate goal is to find a way to get into the playoffs," All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said. "The last two years we've been able to control our own destiny. I think It's a little bit harder now. If we just stay together and continue to fight, we have the team to get in there. That's the key, to get in. Once you get in, anything is possible."
That's where the 49ers are, hoping to get in and get hot. The difference between 7-3 and 6-4 is the difference between confidence and panic.
Confidence was almost on the 49ers' side. Up a field goal late in the fourth quarter, Brooks came with a clutch third-and-2 sack on Saints quarterback Drew Brees, his jarring hit popping the ball loose. Willis recovered the fumble, which would have given the 49ers the ball.
But Brooks was flagged for a personal foul, his hit deemed too close to the head and neck area. The forced turnover was erased, leaving the 49ers an easy target for their second disappointing loss at The Superdome in 2013, the other being the Super Bowl.
"That was the game, basically," Brooks said. "At the last second, (Brees) ducked his head."
That illusion again.
The 49ers didn't lose this game because of that play. They seemed discombobulated most of the game. They committed enough slapstick plays in the fourth quarter alone to make Jim Carrey giggle.
Running back Frank Gore, whose name is sacred among scarlet and gold faithful for all the times he's come through, dropped a gimmie though untouched and no one between him and the end zone.
The 49ers had it first down in the red zone after the second critical reception of the drive for Anquan Boldin. But for some reason, they never looked his way again and wound up settling for a field goal.
There's more. Jon Baldwin had no idea where the ball was on a critical third-down play, leading to an incompletion and a punt. Kassim Osgood had no idea a fair catch was called, giving Brees a 15-yard head start on the game-winning drive. The offensive line blew assignments twice on the 49ers' last drive (or maybe they thought it was a good time to run the ball and eat clock).
Harbaugh wasted his two challenges in the first half. The noise and poor play management had Kaepernick burning timeouts like he bought them in bulk from Costco.
The 49ers are just a mess right now. They are not the juggernaut of physicality who bullied teams into submission. They're no longer explosive on offense, their double-threat quarterback reduced to a dink-and-dunker. They're scarcely even disciplined.
In that respect, maybe Sunday's loss is a good thing. Maybe it prompts a trip back to the drawing board or stirs up some urgency from a team playing like the light bulb will go off any second.
Certainly, a turnaround is possible. The schedule is favorable even if you count the Seahawks rematch as a loss. Crabtree's return figures to help unshackle the 49ers offense. And the defense, while not as dominant as the recent past, is holding its own.
But that's what it would be -- a turnaround. Because these 49ers are not a Super Bowl contender. Don't believe the illusion.
Contact Marcus Thompson II at email@example.com