Referees took Christmas away from Patrick Willis

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Linebacker Ahmad Brooks came tantalizingly close to providing the 49ers with a game-saving play and a possible defining moment for the defense late in the fourth quarter.

Instead, referee Tony Corrente ruled Brooks struck New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees in the neck. As outlined in the NFL rulebook (Rule 12, Article 13), it’s roughing the passer if a defender strikes the passer “forcibly in the head or neck area.”

The resulting fumble, which 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis recovered at the 45-yard line, was overturned. And the Saints picked up a first down and moved 15 yards closer to the game-tying field goal.

New Orleans went on to get a defensive stop against the 49ers and Garrett Hartley kicked a 31-yard field goal as time expired for a 23-20 victory in front of the home crowd at the Superdome.

“I felt like I hit him with my chest, like I basically bear-hugged him kind of hard,” Brooks said of the critical play.

Said 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh, “I talked to Ahmad. Ahmad didn’t think that he hit him in the head.”

-- Matt Maiocco,

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