NEW ORLEANS -- Controversial officiating, an imploding offense and special-teams horrors doomed the 49ers yet again to a Superdome defeat.
Having lost Super Bowl XLVII here in February, the 49ers blew a second-half lead Sunday and fell 23-20 to the New Orleans Saints on Garrett Hartley's game-ending, 31-yard field goal.
Here's the stark reality of the 49ers' predicament after a second-straight defeat: They've fallen into a second-place tie with the Arizona Cardinals, both with 6-4 records and 31/2 games behind the Seattle Seahawks (10-1).
Much of the 49ers' dismay revolved around a personal-foul penalty against linebacker Ahmad Brooks, as it nullified his fumble-forcing sack of Drew Brees with 3 minutes, 12 seconds remaining. Patrick Willis recovered Brees' would-be fumble at the 49ers' 45-yard line.
"That was the game, basically," said Brooks, whose right arm clothes-lined Brees' neck at midfield for a personal foul.
Brooks disagreed with the call, saying he "basically bear-hugged" Brees and that the star quarterback got preferential treatment, a stance echoed by linebacker NaVorro Bowman. Brees claimed Brooks did indeed strike his neck and figured a penalty would be called.
Yes, a sack and fumble certainly could have sealed a 49ers win, inasmuch as they clung to a 20-17 lead. But blaming a controversial call only masked other mistakes.
Colin Kaepernick and the offense failed to get a first down on their final two series, including a potential game-winning drive that started with 2:06 left. Instead they retreated against the Saints' pressure and channeled the late-game woes that prevented a comeback in last Sunday's 10-9 loss to the Carolina Panthers.
"We made it difficult on ourselves at times," said Kaepernick, who got sacked to open that final series and finished 17 of 31 for 127 yards with two touchdown passes and one crazy interception (more on that later).
Brees seized his opportunity to keep the Saints (8-2) unbeaten at home. Their winning drive started at their 40-yard line, courtesy of a punt-coverage blunder by Kassim Osgood, who drew a 15-yard penalty for tackling Darren Sproles on a fair catch.
To no surprise among the 49ers defense, Brees clutched up and rattled off completions of 9, 20 and 12 yards to set up Hartley's game-winner.
"That's Drew Brees. You get only so many breaks against a great quarterback," Bowman said. "We got our break (on Brooks' apparent sack), they threw a flag, he got a second chance and they converted."
Brooks came through earlier with an interception, making it on the first series after halftime to set up a 17-yard touchdown pass from Kaepernick to Vernon Davis for a 17-14 lead. The Saints' next possession ended on a fourth-down incompletion, and the 49ers responded with a 13-play drive that ended with a 29-yard field goal and 20-14 lead.
The Saints' second-half scoring consisted of only three fourth-quarter field goals, seemingly a positive accomplishment by the 49ers defense.
Kaepernick himself got into the defensive act, having to chase after Corey White on a second-quarter interception return. With Kaepernick in hot pursuit, White lost control of the ball just before he reached the goal line, and because the ball went out of the end zone, it was ruled a touchback.
Instead of falling behind 14-7 on an interception-return touchdown, the 49ers eventually converted White's gaffe into a field goal, which Phil Dawson made from 55 yards for a 10-7 lead.
In these teams' third intense meeting in three seasons, three players got carted into the locker room: Saints cornerback Jabari Greer (knee) and 49ers cornerback Tarell Brown (ribs) and left guard Mike Iupati (left knee). The 49ers also played without starting defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who missed his first game this season because of an ankle injury.
Those injuries only added to the 49ers' pain of what's become their second two-game losing streak this season. The 49ers never lost two in a row in Jim Harbaugh's previous two seasons.
"The greater the challenge, the greater the glory," Haraugh said. "I'm proud of our guys, the way that they fight. If we continue to fight like that, we will win a lot of games."
Only six games remain in the regular season, and next up is another cross-country trip, to face the Washington Redskins.
"It's not over," Davis said. "It's not the end of the road."
49ers (6-4) at Washington (3-7), 5:40 p.m. ESPN
X. PAGE 6
x. PAGE 6
Here is the rule cited for the personal-foul penalty against 49ers linebacker Ahmad Brooks for his hit on QB Drew Brees that kept the Saints' tying drive alive:
(c) In covering the passer position, Referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders impermissibly ... use hands, arms, or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area.
49ers (6-4) at Washington (3-7), 5:40 p.m. ESPN
Timely debut for 49ers
cornerback Eric Wright. PAGE 6