NEW ORLEANS - The 49ers will remember their final drive of Super Bowl XLVII as a series of missed opportunities.
"Five yards short," offensive tackle Joe Staley said. "All the work we did in the offseason, the whole entire offseason, everything came down to five yards and we weren't able to get it done."
The Ravens went up 34-29 with 4:19 remaining on a Justin Tucker field goal, but San Francisco, riding a momentous swing in their favor after a 33-minute power outage to overcome a 28-6 deficit, was carving through Baltimore's defense from all angles.
Running back Frank Gore gained eight yards on first down and quarterback Colin Kaepernick scrambled for nine more for a first down with three minutes, 32 seconds left on the clock.
On the next play, which was a first-and-10 from the San Francisco 36, Kaepernick had tight end Vernon Davis in one-on-one coverage from the right side of the formation and down the sideline, where he had a full step on cornerback Corey Graham. The ball caromed off of Davis' outstretched hands, leaving the 49ers inches from what would have been Davis' longest reception of the season.
On second down, Kaepernick, who had great protection most of the night, zipped a pass to wide receiver Michael Crabtree over the middle for a 24-yard gain, setting up first down at the 49ers' 40 with 3:10 to play.
But it turned out the one area the 49ers couldn't master was the red zone, failing to get a touchdown on two first-half attempts inside the Ravens 20 and again in the game's final minutes.
"Had several opportunities in the game," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Didn't play our best game, Ravens made a lot of plays."
Gore came within an ankle tackle by free safety Ed Reed of a 40-yard touchdown run on the ensuing play. In a power formation, Gore saddled behind two blocks from his tight ends and broke into the clear off left tackle. He crossed the 10-yard line before losing steam, and a diving Reed chipped him out of bounds at the Ravens' 7.
"We had to win four plays, all we had to do was win one quarter, just one of those plays and we won the last four," said Ravens defensive end Terrell Suggs.
Running back LaMichael James, in his first carry since a second-quarter fumble and his third of the game, gained two yards up the middle on first down before the two-minute warning.
On second-and-goal at the 5, Kaepernick took a shotgun snap from a two-tight end, two-wide receiver set and rolled right and couldn't get the ball to Crabtree.
The 49ers took another timeout, their second, but the third-down pass to Crabtree also fell incomplete when Ravens' cornerback Jimmy Smith arrived just as Kaepernick's pass did. Crabtree had motioned from the left side of the formation to the right, and as he made his cut toward the sideline, Smith separated him from the ball.
"Very frustrating," Staley said of the final four plays. "We were very relaxed, very confident that we were going to get it in."
With 1:50 to go and facing a do-or-die fourth down because of the shortage of timeouts, Kaepernick took the snap in the Pistol formation with two wide receivers and tight end Delanie Walker in the slot. The Niners let blitzing inside linebacker Dannell Ellerbe through the line, and Kaepernick's quick throw to the back, right corner of the end zone was well out of Crabtree's reach.
"There's no question in my mind that there was a pass interference and then a hold on Crabtree on the last one," Harbaugh said.
Nonetheless, that was one of just four plays from the 5 in which the 49ers failed to score.
"We got all the way down to the 5-yard line," 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. " With the offense that we have and the quarterback that we have, I would think that we probably punch it in, but they had a good play. Give credit to Baltimore having a great goal line stand, they were ready for it."
It was Kaepernick's 11th career start and the grandest stage he's seen, but given his 8.9-yard rushing average against the Ravens - seven carries, 62 yards - and 326 yards rushing in four postseason games, why not keep the ball in the prodigy's hands close to the goal line? Why not try Gore, who averaged 5.8 yards per carry and rushed for a game-high 110 yards on 19 carries?
Harbaugh didn't want to talk about the reason behind the strategy, saying dryly, "We had other plays called."
Harbaugh didn't share what Kaepernick did a few minutes later when he arrived for his postgame press conference.
"That wasn't the original option," he said of the fourth-down play. "It's something I audibled to at the line based on the look they gave us.
"It was cover-zero," Kaepernick said, indicating the Ravens did not have safeties in the middle of the field. "I was just trying to give him a chance."
The 49ers initially had a play called expecting base coverage.
"We kept them out of the end zone on the 2-yard line," Ravens middle linebacker Ray Lewis said, although the 49ers got no closer than the 5 on that series. "That is championship football."