NFC West: 2013 Week 16 ATL at SF

SAN FRANCISCO – Was Candlestick Park really going to go out with the San Francisco 49ers dropping the ball?

The venerable old cement block's signature moment was Dwight Clark securing "The Catch." But Candlestick was in danger of its final act being forever known for a sensational flub on an onside kick by one of the 49ers' best players.

However, the stadium hosting its final regular-season game Monday night had one last dose of magic left in its rickety, cold soul, and NaVorro Bowman will forever be remembered for the Immaculate Redemption.

The dominant inside linebacker saved the 49ers from sending Candlestick out in a disastrous manner by returning a Matt Ryan pass 89 yards -- the return sparked by a terrific play by cornerback Tramaine Brock, who knocked the ball into the air -- for a touchdown with 1:10 remaining to seal a 34-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

"Best thing I've ever seen in a football game," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Might have been close to 'The Catch.'"

Like that play, Bowman’s touchdown had a huge effect on the 49ers’ season. With it, they clinched their third playoff appearance in three seasons under Harbaugh. They still have a chance to be the No. 1 seed in the NFC, or they could land as low as No. 6.

However, had Bowman not made his redeeming play, there would have been a real chance of the 49ers missing the playoffs completely.

The Falcons made it interesting by scoring a touchdown to pull to within 27-24 with 2:09 remaining. The game got downright intense on the ensuing kickoff.

As part of the hands team, Bowman, a candidate for the NFL’s defensive player of the year award, let the ball bounce right by him. It was recovered by Atlanta at the 49ers’ 30-yard line.

The Falcons went for the kill against the 49ers' stunned defense, which struggled for the first time in several weeks. The Falcons were threatening to reach the end zone where Dwight Clark made "The Catch" in the 1981 NFC Championship Game, sending the 49ers to their first Super Bowl and kick-starting a San Francisco dynasty.

There was a ceremony in that end zone at halftime. Was this really how the 49ers were going to pay their last respects to "The Catch"?

No, Bowman wouldn't allow it. He caught the pass deflected by Brock and bolted down a jubilant 49ers sideline. The play concluded with Bowman diving into the end zone and being mobbed by teammates.

It was as if Bill Buckner overcame his infamous error with a game-winning grand slam.

“I’ve never seen a guy have a turnaround like that,” 49ers guard Alex Boone said.

Sleep well, Candlestick Park. What you lacked in comfort and beauty, you made up for with panache.

Of course, there is a chance there will be more to come for the stadium that has hosted an NFL-record 27 playoff games. The 11-4 49ers would win the NFC West and earn a first-round bye and home game if they beat Arizona in Week 17 and Seattle loses at home to St. Louis. If those two things happen, and Carolina loses to Atlanta, the 49ers would be the No. 1 seed and have home-field advantage throughout the NFC playoffs. But those scenarios are long shots.

The best and most probable scenario is that the 49ers beat the Cardinals, who also have playoff hopes, and wind up the No. 5 seed.

If this was the last game at Candlestick, it went out with a party. There were tributes all night long, but the place thumped the loudest as Bowman soared into the end zone. In addition to securing a playoff berth, it gave Harbaugh an unforgettable 50th birthday.

"Best birthday present I've ever gotten ... second only to being born,” Harbaugh said.

However, there were plenty of nervy moments Monday night. It had to cross the minds of everyone in attendance that this special night could easily teeter the other way, and that was before Bowman’s gaffe.

The Falcons led 10-3 at halftime, and the 49ers’ offense was dormant to that point.

However, San Francisco was fueled by big second halves by quarterback Colin Kaepernick and receiver Michael Crabtree. After having one catch for 3 yards in the first half, Crabtree had four catches for 99 yards in the third quarter. The 49ers’ 31 points after halftime were their most in the second half of a game since 1985.

None of those points were bigger than Bowman’s six. Just like that, Candlestick Park said goodbye with another signature moment.

Rapid Reaction: San Francisco 49ers

December, 23, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO -- A few observations from the San Francisco 49ers' 34-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night.

What it means: The 49ers, who are 11-4 and who have won five straight games, have qualified for the playoffs in all three seasons under coach Jim Harbaugh. And the possibilities abound. The 49ers can still be the No. 1, No. 2, No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the NFC. They will win the NFC West and get a first-round bye if Seattle loses to visiting St. Louis and the 49ers win at Arizona on Sunday. If the 49ers beat the Cardinals, the lowest seed they will be is No. 5.

Bowman goes from goat to hero: 49ers star inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman made a huge mistake when he let an onside kick get past him. The Falcons recovered the ball, down 27-24, with 2 minutes, 9 seconds to play. The Falcons quickly moved inside the red zone and appeared ready to tie the game or take the lead. But Bowman redeemed himself dramatically as he caught a tipped ball (after a nice play by San Francisco cornerback Tramaine Brock) and took it 89 yards for a touchdown to seal the game. It was a signature Candlestick Park play.

Party night: The 49ers went out in style in the final regular-season game at Candlestick. It was a party atmosphere all night, with plenty of 49ers stars of the past and present on hand as well as a variety of tributes. It was also a terrific 50th-birthday gift to Harbaugh.

Stock Watch: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and receiver Michael Crabtree took over in the third quarter, when the 49ers outscored Atlanta 10-0. Kaepernick hit Crabtree four times for 99 yards in the period. Kaepernick had three big runs in the second half for 35 yards.

Ground game: Atlanta scored to make it a 20-17 game with 8:34 to play in the fourth quarter before Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter combined on a six-play, 76-yard touchdown drive -- all six plays were on the ground -- to give San Francisco a 27-17 lead with about five minutes to go.

What's next: The 49ers visit the red-hot Cardinals. Arizona can still make the playoffs if it wins and the Saints lose at home to Tampa Bay on Sunday.

49ers' Mike Iupati returns

December, 23, 2013
SAN FRANCISCO -- Mike Iupati is back.

The San Francisco 49ers' standout left guard is active and is set to start Monday night against Atlanta. Iupati has missed the past four games with a sprained knee. Adam Snyder has taken his place.

However, backup receiver Mario Manningham is inactive. He has played the past six games after being out since last December with a knee injury. He missed two days of practice last week with a knee issue and because of an illness. Manningham's play has dwindled in the past three games with star receiver Michael Crabtree back.

Rookie Quinton Patton will get an opportunity. He has played since he broke his foot in Week 4.

Another interesting note about tonight's 46-man roster is tight end Derek Carrier is inactive for first time in a month. Newly signed backup fullback Will Tukuafu is active. He is 293 pounds. He could be a short-yardage factor.