By Morris Phillips
Like many of the truly great football games played at Candlestick Park over the years, this one was contentious and very much in doubt late in the fourth quarter.
And like all those great games of the past, someone in a red jersey and gold helmet made a game-winning play just as NaVorro Bowman did on Monday night.
The 49ers saved their best for last in the final regular season game at Candlestick, beating the Falcons, 34-24, in large part due to Bowman’s interception and 89-yard return for a touchdown with Atlanta driving for the winning score with less than two minutes remaining.
“(Bowman and Falcon Harry Douglas) were both going to the spot and the ball bounced up and that was a play that changed the game,” Falcons Coach Mike Smith recounted.
“The Catch is ‘The Catch.’ There will never be another catch, but this was a great moment,” Coach Jim Harbaugh said.
On a night that was preordained to be 49ers, start to finish, the Falcons obviously were presented a different script. The NFC finalists from a year ago came in limping with a 4-10 record but they switched to a strut for much of the first half, and more significantly, late in the fourth quarter.
The Falcons led at the half, 10-3. Then after the 49ers responded with 17 straight points, capped by Colin Kaepernick’s 4-yard touchdown run, the Falcons came up with two fourth quarter scores and an improbable recovery of Matt Bryant’s onside kick. That set up the big finish with Atlanta driving deep in 49ers’ territory, trailing 27-24.
Falcons’ quarterback Matt Ryan attempted to squeeze in a pass to Douglas on a slant but the Atlanta tight end was immediately engaged with 49ers’ nickel back Tramaine Brock who fought Douglas for the ball until it popped up and free and into the hands of Bowman, who was closing in to make a tackle.
Bowman then turned on the jets, accompanied by Patrick Willis and Eric Reid, on a race down the sideline that ended with the All-Pro linebacker airborne into the end zone with the likely final touchdown at the 54-year old stadium.
“I was excited, it was an amazing play by T. Brock and Bowman,” Kaepernick said. “For him to finish it out that way, it was great.”
While Bowman finished off the Falcons, Kaepernick started the process with one of his best running and passing performances of the season. Kap finished 13 for 21 and 197 yards through the air, but his six carries for 51 yards sparked the 49ers’ second half rally. The third-year quarterback also energized Michael Crabtree, who had his best outing since returning from the Achilles injury with five catches for 102 yards.
Crabtree’s 47-yard catch and run highlighted the 49ers’ opening drive of the second half that ended with Kaepernick connecting with Anquan Boldin on a 10-yard pass and score.
The 49ers (11-4) clinched a wild card berth with the win, but with the Seahawks losing to Arizona over the weekend, the 49ers remain alive for the NFC West title and the NFC’s No. 1 seed. The unlikely path to the division crown would require that Seattle loses its home finale to the Rams, while the 49ers beat the Cardinals in Glendale, Arizona.
The 49ers will have to be wary of a loud and boisterous crowd in Arizona with the Cardinals still clinging to slim playoff hopes themselves. Arizona would need to beat the 49ers while seeing the Saints lose their home finale to the Buccaneers. The NFL has manufactured additional drama by scheduling the Saints game in the afternoon window at the same time as the 49ers-Cardinals game.
The all–to–sudden final football game at Candlestick Park came with plenty of ceremony courtesy of appearances by Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, Bubba Paris, Dwight Clark and Giants’ legends Wille McCovey and Willie Mays as well. ESPN’s Chris Berman hosted a 15-minute post-game celebration that ended with a singing appearance by Philadelphia singing group Boyz II Men.