- Bill Williamson, ESPN Staff Writer
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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.