NEW ORLEANS -- Ahmad Brooks ended his unpleasant day by sitting at his locker stall, trying his best not to sound bitterly cheated -- and failing.

"It was BS, man," Brooks said. "It was a BS call to me."

The 49ers linebacker was talking about the play that pivoted his team's 23-20 loss to the Saints in the wrong direction. The play was a penalty on Brooks for tackling Saints quarterback Drew Brees around the neck -- although Brooks never touched Brees' neck directly. Brooks seemed to make contact only with Brees' shoulder pads, which protect the ... you know, shoulders.

New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) in the second half of an NFL football
New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees (9) is sacked by San Francisco 49ers outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks (55) in the second half of an NFL football game in New Orleans, Sunday, Nov. 17, 2013. ((AP Photo/Dave Martin))

The situation: New Orleans trailed 20-17 with less than four minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Saints faced third down at the 35-yard line of the 49ers. Brees dropped back but was swarmed by blitzing 49ers linebackers. Brooks wrapped his arm around Brees' upper body and slammed him down, causing a fumble. Patrick Willis recovered the ball for the 49ers. And then ...

"I was excited," Willis said. "I was thinking there was a good chance the game could be over. But a second later, I saw the yellow. I thought: 'Did a ref drop a flag? Did he lose it?' ''

Nope. It was just the new NFL, introducing itself once more. The league is struggling with a revised way to play football -- just as violent but not as vicious, if that is possible, which it probably isn't. Sunday was Brooks' turn to be caught up in the backwash. Half an hour after the game, he was still trying to figure it out.


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"I mean, I'm going full speed, and he is going full speed," Brooks said. "And at the last second, he ducked his shoulder, you know what I mean? I don't think I could've done anything differently. ... I'm coming around the corner and trying to knock the ball out of his hands because I'm thinking he's going to throw the ball. ... I don't even know what they called."

They called a personal foul.

"And that was the game, basically," Brooks said.

Not totally. But close enough to totally. Brooks' 15-yard penalty and nullified fumble recovery led to a game-tying Saints field goal by Garrett Hartley. After one more failed 49ers offensive possession, Brees drove the Saints to the game-winning field goal as time expired.

So was the Brooks hit illegal? The NFL's Rule 12, Section 2, contains a clause that says "referees will be particularly alert to fouls in which defenders ... use hands, arms or other parts of the body to hit the passer forcibly in the head or neck area."

Applied most liberally, the penalty ruling might have been correct. It depends on the definition of where a quarterback's shoulders end and his "neck area" begins. But a year or two ago, before the increased emphasis on preventing concussions, would the hit have drawn a flag? Probably not. Brees said he thought it was a penalty as soon as he was hit. Someone asked Brooks whether Brees received any special consideration on the play because he was Drew Brees.

"I don't think so," Brooks said. "I don't think the call went that way because it was Drew Brees. I just think probably ... it's because we're in New Orleans."

Could be. But either way, arguing is futile. You know what Sunday's real message was? The 49ers are a fragile team now.

That doesn't mean fragile in the sense of physical toughness. Sunday's game was as collision-intensive and stomach-testing a three hours of competition as you'll ever see. The fragile part involves the 49ers' formula to win. It's such a tenuous formula that a single questionable call, such as the one against Brooks, can throw the formula out of whack.

"I thought they left it all out on the field," coach Jim Harbaugh said of his guys. "I thought that they played their guts out."

To win, the 49ers need a good rushing attack and need quarterback Colin Kaepernick to generate at least two or three touchdown passes. Sunday, they accumulated 81 rushing yards and two TD passes. The defense held the Saints to two touchdowns.

However, all of that was just good enough for the 49ers to hold service -- even on a day when they received their own share of breaks. This included a muffed Saints punt return, a crazy fumble through the end zone that sabotaged a sure New Orleans touchdown and an iffy non-intentional-grounding call on the 49ers' last possession involving Kaepernick in his own end zone, which the Saints thought was a safety.

Bottom line: Unless the 49ers can find a way to impose their will more decisively against opponents and build up larger leads, they will be vulnerable to a controversial call such as the Brooks play to swing the game against them.

Kaepernick is probably the biggest key to all this, of course. He continues to play in the one-step-forward, two-steps-backward-whoa-look-out-that-might-be-a-safety mode. When he was asked if the team was surprised to have four losses after 10 games, Kaepernick gave a verbal nod.

"I think we are," Kaepernick said. "But we still have six more to go. And we can still finish this season at 12-4."

True. The 49ers are currently tied with Chicago and Arizona for the second wild-card playoff spot. You can look at the schedule and see four more victories, maybe even five, if you're optimistic. Six? Hard to believe, with Seattle still on the schedule.

These 49ers are still a playoff team. But it's becoming clear that any postseason home games are unlikely. The final three scheduled 49ers games at Candlestick Park will indeed be the final three 49ers games at Candlestick Park.

For the 49ers at this point, the mission is to make certain they aren't the final three 49ers games of the 2013 season. Wrap your arms around that thought. Just don't wrap them around anyone's neck.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com.