The San Francisco 49ers have called Candlestick Park their home since 1971, but outside of a couple of famous examples (Joe Montana's touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the 1981 NFC championship game against the Dallas Cowboys and Steve Young's touchdown pass to Terrell Owens in the 1998 wild-card round against the Green Bay Packers), it will be tough to think of a more memorable ending to a 49ers win than how things went in San Francisco's 34-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the stadium's finale.
With 1:31 left in the game, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan threw a quick pass to receiver Harry Douglas from the San Francisco 10-yard line, and cornerback Tramaine Brock established tight coverage. The ball bobbled, and inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman returned the ball 89 yards for the touchdown that put the game out of reach for the last time in a game that had no shortage of narratives and turnarounds. The most amazing aspect of the play is that Bowman started the play blitzing directly over center, and zoomed out to the flat to make the impressive pick.
"You know, just reading the quarterback, and I've always said that a lot of plays are made when you run to the ball," Bowman said after the game. "That's all I was doing -- just running to the ball and trying to make a tackle. It popped up, and I was able to make a play for my team."
Bowman felt badly because he missed the onside kick that would have secured the win earlier. Atlanta scored on a two-yard Ryan pass to tight end Tony Gonzalez with 2:14 remaining, and that put the Falcons to within three points at 27-24. Bowman, who head coach Jim Harbaugh believes should receive consideration for the NFL's Defensive Player of the Year award, was able to make up for the earlier error, putting the 11-4 49ers in the postseason and ending a long franchise history at Candlestick Park with a bit of defensive style.
"It means a lot," he concluded. "There's a lot of history in this stadium, and we cannot leave it with a [loss]. If that had happened, it would have been my fault, so I'm just glad I was able to make it up."
The 49ers eliminated the Falcons from the 2012 playoffs in the NFC championship game, which is a fairly decent indicator as to how far the team -- now sporting a record of 4-11 -- has fallen in a short time. But the Falcons team that came into Candlestick on this night looked perfectly capable of ruining that storybook finish. They led 10-3 at the half, and were able to counter every punch the rejuvenated San Francisco offense threw at them in the second half ... at least, until the end.
"It was a thriller, and it came down to the wire, but our defense came out and made a play and secured the win for us," 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick said.
Kaepernick found it tough sledding in the first half, as Atlanta defensive coordinator and former 49ers head coach Mike Nolan threw a dizzying array of blitzes and disguised coverages at the third-year quarterback. He completed just six of 11 passes for 69 yards in the first half, but adapted to Atlanta's defensive strategy by waiting for longer routes to develop, and working in effective running from Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. San Francisco's first touchdown drive of the game came early in the first quarter when, after incomplete passes to Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a shorter pass, and the receiver was able to turn that into a 47-yard gain. From there, it was a 19-yarder to Crabtree, and a 10-yard touchdown pass to Anquan Boldin, and the 49ers were on their way. Kaepernick finished with 197 yards and that touchdown on 13 completions, and added 51 yards and a touchdown on the ground for good measure.
Once the 49ers established a lead into the fourth quarter, it was time to go back to the old-school football enjoyed by Harbaugh. And on the coach's 50th birthday, the 49ers put together drives that looked a lot like how some teams played around the time Harbaugh was born. In their last two scoring drives, San Francisco threw the ball just twice in 15 total plays.
Still, the Falcons were more than game. They returned fire with a 39-yard touchdown pass from Ryan to Roddy White, and answered Frank Gore's one-yard touchdown run with that two-yard scoring play to Gonzalez, the successful onside kick, and then ... the another one of the disasters that have personified Atlanta's season.
And that's why, after it was all over, all thoughts on the home team's side returned to that magical Bowman interception.
"It was one of the greatest plays I've ever seen," Harbaugh said. "I don't think I've ever been involved in a football game where something that good happened. It was a great play by T-Brock, and a great play by NaVorro Bowman. It looked like a pick-and-roll in basketball -- a pass and a pick, and he took it all the way to the house.
"That was the best birthday present I've ever gotten -- second to being born!"
Now, depending on what the Seattle Seahawks do against the St. Louis Rams next Sunday (not to mention other NFC scenarios), the 49ers could come into the postseason as anything from the one- to the six-seed. They'll have to wait and see how it all plays out, but there may be another game or two at the 'Stick, after all.
Or, as Kaepernick said more succinctly, "We've got one more win to go, and then we'll worry about that."