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49ers clinch playoff bid, say goodbye to 'Stick

The SportsXchange

SAN FRANCISCO -- Maybe it wasn't the last goodbye.

Maybe the San Francisco 49ers, if circumstances are ideal, will hold a playoff game at Candlestick Park, a second farewell.

Regardless, the 49ers made a bit of history in their regular-season finale at the old stadium, beating the Atlanta Falcons 34-24 to clinch a spot in the playoffs.

After 43 years on the shores of Candlestick Point, the 49ers took their leave in a display of postgame fireworks, exploding over the San Francisco Bay, and figurative in-game explosions, the most significant, a game-saving, 89-yard touchdown interception return by linebacker NaVorro Bowman with a 1:10 remaining.

The 49ers (11-4) awakened after a listless first half to take what appeared to be solid control. They led 27-17 with five minutes to play.

The Falcons (4-11) sliced the 49ers' lead to 27-24 with 2:14 remaining when tight end Tony Gonzalez caught a 2-yard touchdown pass from Matt Ryan.

Atlanta running back Jason Snelling then recovered an onside kick at San Francisco's 30-yard line, and two completions by Ryan moved the Falcons to the 10-yard line. Atlanta appeared poised to at least kick a tying field goal or maybe grab a winning touchdown.

Instead, on second-and-1 from the San Francisco 10-yard line, Ryan's pass intended for wide receiver Harry Douglas was knocked free by cornerback Tramaine Brock and snared by Bowman, who sprinted for the score.

The long touchdown sealed the 49ers' fifth consecutive victory.

"That was the best birthday present I've ever had," an elated 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said on the evening he turned 50.

Ryan, who passed for 348 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions, experienced the opposition emotion.

"I threw it and got hit and went to the ground," he said. "I didn't see what happened."

However, he heard the screams of 69,732 fans who maybe never liked Candlestick -- former 49ers owner Ed DeBartolo Jr, in attendance, once called it "a pig sty" -- but will hold it dear.

"The crowd got loud," Ryan said, "and that's not good. It was a tough ending to a pretty well-played game."

And a memory finale for Candlestick, which opened in 1960. The 49ers moved there in 1971. It was their home as they won five Super Bowls.

"FAREWELL CANDLESTICK," said the signs hanging from the decks of the maligned stadium, which survived the World Series earthquake of 1989 but will fall victim to a wrecker's ball when the 49ers move to their new field in Santa Clara, 40 miles to the south.

"I'm going to miss this place," 49ers tight end Vernon Davis said. "Still a little emotional."

Of course, despite all the pomp, circumstance and celebrity appearances by everyone from Dwight Clark, who in January 1982 made The Catch, to Willie Mays, who made a lot of catches when the San Francisco Giants played at the 'Stick, there could be a postseason game yet to come.

If the 49ers beat the Cardinals in Arizona on Sunday, and the Seattle Seahawks (12-3) loss a home game to the St. Louis Rams, San Francisco would capture the NFC West title and be assured of a home playoff date.

If San Francisco wins, Seattle loses and the Carolina Panthers (11-4) lose at Atlanta, the 49ers would win the division and secure home-field advantage through the NFC playoffs.

The Falcons held San Francisco to a field goal in the first half, leading 10-3 at intermission. An upset? Not with quarterback Colin Kaepernick throwing and running, running back Frank Gore pounding away, and Bowman coming to the rescue in the end.

Kaepernick, going to the read-option more than in the previous few games, ran six times for 51 yards and a touchdown, and he completed 13 of 21 passes for 197 yards and a score. Gore carried 21 times for 97 yards and a touchdown. Running back Kendall Hunter had a burst of 45 yards that contributed to a San Francisco touchdown.

San Francisco wide receiver Michael Crabtree made five receptions for 102 yards.

Atlanta wide receiver Roddy White caught 12 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown.

"We had a tough time stopping them on small drives, two of them aided by penalties," Falcons coach Mike Smith said about the second half. "We had a very interesting play at the end."

He was talking about the Bowman pick-six, which more accurately from Atlanta terms could be described as devastating, not interesting.

"I'm happy for the guy's success," Davis said about Bowman. "It made me proud to see him get that interception and take it all the way."

Harbaugh, who is looking for a contract extension, used convoluted English to describe what went on.

"That was a never-been-involved-in football game, where something that good happened in a game," he said. "It might have been close to The Catch."

Then he halted.

"No, The Catch is the Catch," Harbaugh added, "There will never be another Catch, but this was a great moment."

For San Francisco. Not for Atlanta.

NOTES: Hall of Fame wide receiver Jerry Rice, now an ESPN broadcaster, ran pass patterns pregame in a suit and tie. ... Willie Mays and Willie McCovey, baseball Hall of Famers who starred for the San Francisco Giants, were in attendance for the farewell to Candlestick Park. ... Falcons QB Matt Ryan, who said he watched 49ers games on TV when Steve Young and Joe Montana quarterbacked San Francisco, thought it was "cool" to be in the apparent final game at the 'Stick. ... G Mike Iupati, out the previous four games, started for the 49ers. ... Atlanta DT Corey Peters left in the second quarter with an Achilles injury.
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