What you need to know: The end zones were painted red.
It was the regular-season finale for Candlestick Park, all right. But this game had a distinct postseason feel to it. And that much was evident from one glance at the end zones.
Only during the playoffs have the end zones at Candlestick Park been painted red. An exception was made Monday night against the Atlanta Falcons.
And, make no mistake, the 49ers’ postseason began on the night Candlestick Park might have seen its final game.
Linebacker NaVorro Bowman delivered what could forever be known as The Pick-Six to Close the ‘Stick to send his coach into a sprint down the sideline and the crowd of 69,732 fans into a state of wild celebration.
After failing to field an onside kick, Bowman made amends with 70 seconds remaining when he grabbed a Matt Ryan pass that cornerback Tramaine Brock broke up. He then raced 89 yards with a trailing committee of teammates. The journey ended with a plunge into the south end zone for the clinching points in a 34-24 victory.
“There was the build up to the final regular-season game at the iconic Candlestick Park,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. “And I love history. I appreciate history as much as anyone. But for the men in the arena, it’s about the future.”
And that future – at least, Week 17 of the NFL regular season – becomes a lot less stressful as the 49ers clinched the club’s third consecutive trip to the playoffs.
“It’s a great way to close Candlestick Park,” 49ers safety Donte Whitner said. “The Atlanta Falcons brought everything they had. Today was their Super Bowl. They wanted to kind of right their season. It actually felt like the NFC Championship from last year.”
Yes, the Falcons looked a lot more similar to the team appeared destined for the Super Bowl last season after building a 17-0 lead over the 49ers. But the 49ers came roaring back for 28-24 over the Falcons. The 49ers moved on to the Super Bowl.
And they remain alive to get back there this season.
Meanwhile, the Falcons have stumbled to a 4-11 record. And, again, they absorbed a heart-breaking loss with Bowman playing a key role in a late-game play.
The 49ers clinched the NFC title last season with Bowman’s breakup of Ryan’s fourth-down pass from the San Francisco 10-yard line. Again, the Bowman magic occurred on a Falcons pass play that originated at the 10
Bowman put himself in position to pull off one of the most dramatic plays in franchise history with his quick decision to back off when he recognized Ryan was getting rid of the ball quickly – just ahead of a hit from blitzing safety Eric Reid. Bowman peeled away from the line of scrimmage and was in position to take advantage of Brock’s play against Falcons wide receiver Harry Douglas.
“It was an all-out blitz, and I aborted my blitz and read the quarterback and T-Brock did a great job of breaking on the ball and I came up with it and took it 90 yards,” Bowman said.
The 49ers closed the book on Candlestick with a 205-124-2 regular-season record – the most victories for any team in its current home stadium.
“A lot of great memories, a lot of great wins,” Harbaugh said. “And this was as big as they come. That was a tremendous win for us. And we needed it. Our team needed it.”
Bowman’s redemption: Just moments prior to Bowman’s first career touchdown, it appeared he might be remembered in an entirely different way on this night.
The 49ers had the “hands team” on the field against the Falcons’ expected Matt Bosher’s onside kick. While wide receiver Anquan Boldin was on one side, Bowman took that position on the other.
But Bowman completely misplayed the bouncing ball, enabling Falcons running back Jason Snelling to make a one-handed grab against his left hip along the sideline at the 49ers’ 30-yard line with 2:09 remaining in regulation. The Falcons trailed 27-24, and they were already in field-goal range.
“They put me on the hands team and I learned it is not all about hands,” Bowman said. “You’ve got to have some type of baseball IQ to get down and stop those short balls. In practice they are pretty easy. But in the game, they are a lot harder.”
Of course, it begs the question: Why Michael Crabtree is not out there in such situation? After all, Harbaugh once said Crabtree has the best hands he’s ever seen.
When Crabtree was asked if he were on the “hands team,” Boldin interjected with precise comedic timing, “Now he is.”
“I’m not going to say anything about that,” Crabtree said.
Kap’s call: Quarterback Colin Kaepernick rushed for 51 yards and a touchdown on six carries. He used his legs and his arm (13 for 21 passing for 197 yards) to account for touchdowns. And he also exercised his judgment on Frank Gore’s 1-yard touchdown with 5:04 remaining to give the 49ers a 27-17 lead.
Offensive coordinator Greg Roman made one play call. And after Kaepernick received it from Harbaugh via the radio device in his helmet, he opted to go with Gore’s request, instead.
Gore wanted the same play that was called on first down, when he was stopped just shy of the end zone from the 2-yard line. On the second try, Gore found a crease behind left guard Mike Iupati to score his ninth touchdown rushing of the season. Gore had 97 yards on 21 carries on Monday.
“We had a different play call and Frank said he wanted the same thing,” Kaepernick said. “I wasn’t about to argue with him. . . I don’t think Coach was too mad because we scored. So it was all right.”
Said Gore, ““I kind of saw the defense, how they were playing, and we were at what? The inch line. And the ‘backers were playing like 5 yards back. I knew it was a quick hit. . . I’m happy he listened to me. That the thing I love about Kap. He listens to his teammates.”
Quick-hitters: Harbaugh became the first 49ers coach to lead the team to the playoffs in each of his first three seasons. With 35 regular-season victories in three seasons, he ranks behind only George Seifert in NFL history for best opening three-season stretch to a career.
Harbaugh called Bowman’s pick and sprint, “The best thing I’ve ever seen in a football game.”
And it all came on his 50th birthday.
“That was the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten,” Harbaugh said, “second only to be being born. That was awesome.” . . .
The 49ers played their first game without fullback Bruce Miller, who is out for the remainder of the season with a fractured shoulder blade. The 49ers used a fullback on 23 of their 57 offensive snaps. However, they divided the playing time amongst two players. Newly signed Will Tukuafu played 12 snaps, while Anthony Dixon was on the field for 11 offensive plays. . .
With Mario Manningham inactive due to a knee injury, rookie Quinton Patton saw his first action since Week 4, when he sustained a fractured right foot. Patton played 18 snaps as the 49ers’ No. 3 wide receiver but he did not see a pass thrown his way. . .
Tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald had mostly forgettable nights. Davis missed some action in the first half when he was poked in the eye, he said. After returning to action, Davis dropped one pass and awkwardly failed to catch another pass that sailed over his head.
McDonald was open on a corner route but lost his footing and fell as the pass arrived. And he dropped another pass. In all, Kaepernick targeted the tight ends five times without completing a pass.
However, Davis and McDonald teamed up to make a major contribution on Kaepernick’s 10-yard touchdown pass to Boldin to open the second half. Kaepernick swung a pass out to Boldin on a wide receiver screen. McDonald and Davis made blocks on the outside that enabled Boldin to squeeze through and into the end zone. . .
Boldin caught six passes for 72 yards to giving him 1,030 yards receiving on the season. It is the sixth time in his career he has gone over 1,000 yards, and the first time since 2009. . .
Linebacker Patrick Willis recorded 18 tackles, including 15 solo stops and three tackles behind the line of scrimmage. Bowman was not just a one-hit wonder. He added 11 tackles, including one for a loss. . .
Ryan completed 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards with two touchdown and two interceptions. Safety Eric Reid allowed wide receiver Roddy White to get behind him for a 39-yard touchdown midway through the fourth quarter to pull within 20-17. And Ryan’s 2-yard scoring pass to Tony Gonzalez with 2:09 remaining set the stage for the onside kick and, perhaps, memorable conclusion to the 49ers’ 43 years at Candlestick.
Quote of the day: “That was bizarre. It’s only fitting, right?”
--Dwight Clark, former 49ers wide receiver who delivered “The Catch” in the NFC Championship game against the Dallas Cowboys in January 1982
Looking ahead: Perhaps, the final game at Candlestick Park was really not the final game at Candlestick Park.
The 49ers (11-4) enter the final week of the regular season with a playoff spot wrapped up. Now, the 49ers are still alive for the NFC West title. They could even end up as the No. 1 seed with home-field advantage in the NFC playoffs. They could be the No. 2 seed or the No. 5 or 6 seed as a wild-card team.
With a victory Sunday at the Arizona Cardinals, the 49ers would be no worse than the fifth seed. If the 49ers win and the Seattle Seahawks lose to the St. Louis Rams, the 49ers would win the NFC West for the third consecutive season. The 49ers and Seahawks would have identical records, and the 49ers would have the tie-breaker edge based on a better record within the division. If the Carolina Panthers also lose at Atlanta, the 49ers would be the No. 1 seed in the playoffs.
If the Seahawks close out the regular season with a victory, the 49ers would be a wild-card entry into the playoffs and travel to the winner of either the NFC North or NFC East on the weekend of Jan. 4-5 to open the playoffs.
The Cardinals (10-5) have playoff hopes, too. If the New Orleans Saints lose at home against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Cardinals would earn a playoff spot with a victory the 49ers.