SAN FRANCISCO - Candlestick farewell ... phew!
NaVorro Bowman's 89-yard interception return for a touchdown on Monday saved the 49ers from an embarrassing flop in the final regular-season game at their home for the last 42 years and sent them to the postseason for the third straight season.
The play occurred with 70 seconds left and the Falcons poised to at least tie the game if not take a lead that would have put San Francisco's playoff hopes in jeopardy heading into the final week. But it was Bowman, who thwarted the Falcons' last-second touchdown bid in the NFC Championship game 11 months ago, who came up with perhaps the biggest play of the season in the 34-24 win.
"One of the greatest plays I've ever seen happen," gushed Jim Harbaugh, who likened the play to The Catch. Harbaugh, who celebrated his 50th birthday on Monday, said the interception was the best gift he could have asked for, "second only to being born. That was awesome."
Bowman was minutes away from being one of the game's goats.
After the Falcons drew to within three points of the lead on a two-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan to Tony Gonzalez, Atlanta called for an on-side kick that scooted past Bowman and which the Falcons collected at the San Francisco 30-yard line. From there, Ryan then hit Harry Douglas for 11 yards and Gonzalez for 9 yards to put the Falcons on the 49ers' 10-yard line.
Cornerback Tramaine Brock said Ryan, who finished with 348 passing yards, had been successful throwing a quick slant to Douglas throughout the game, and he was waiting for such a play. When Ryan dropped back only three steps and planted his foot, Brock knew what was coming.
"I knew he was going to come that way because it had kind of been open," Brock said. "He hit it like three or four times, so I knew he was coming that way. So like I said, I was anticipating it."
This time, Brock broke in front of Douglas, tipping the ball into the air. It was collected by Bowman, who ran downfield with a convoy of 49ers - including Harbaugh, who was on the sideline - leading him into the end zone.
"I was the guy that let the ball through on the onside kick," Bowman said. "Coach (Jim Leavitt) said let it go, but it was still my bad. I had to overcome it, but I was still able to go and make a play."
The interception return masked the fact that they normally reliable defense twice squandered 10-point leads in the second half. Indeed what most observers expected would be a celebratory, runaway win for the 49ers quickly turned into a stomach-clenching struggle when the four-win Falcons took a 10-3 lead into halftime.
The flat feeling continued as the 49ers opened the second half. Vernon Davis, who finished without a catch, dropped a 25-yard pass from Colin Kaepernick while Michael Crabtree couldn't haul in another long pass on third down. But an offsides penalty against the Falcons gave San Francisco a reprieve on third down, and this time Kaepernick hit Crabtree for a 47-yard gain to the Atlanta 31-yard line.
Two plays later, Kaepernick threw a 19-yard dart to Crabtree. And on the play after that, Kaepernick flipped a short pass to Anquan Boldin, who picked up a few key blocks and then went into the end zone for a 10-yard score that tied the game at 10.
Kaepernick, who had 69 passing yards in the first half, had 76 yards on the opening drive of the third quarter. The 49ers had 113 yards of offense at halftime but 169 yards in the third quarter.
San Francisco's offense again seemed to put its team ahead for good in the fourth quarter when, following a 39-yard touchdown catch by Atlanta's Roddy White, the 49ers put together a touchdown drive that gave them a 27-17 lead.
The possession consisted of six straight running plays, including a 45-yard scamper by Kendall Hunter and a one-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore, who finished with 97 yards on the evening. But the Falcons answered with their own 11-play touchdown drive, which was followed by the successful on-side kick.
That set up Bowman's heroics.
The Catch and other famous 49er moments had been played throughout the game during what was billed as "Farewell to Candlestick"on the stadium's video boards. Did Harbaugh really think Bowman's interception ranked with the best plays the venerable stadium has ever produced?
"The Catch is The Catch," Harbaugh conceded. "But this was a great moment."
-- Matt Barrows