It was less than a year ago when the San Francisco 49ers travelled to Atlanta with a trip to the Super Bowl on the line.
It might seem like a decade for the Falcons.
Since the Falcons took a 17-0 lead in that game, not a lot has gone well. First it started with the 49ers' improbable comeback to win 28-24, but at the time the franchise still seemed to be in a good place. Tight end Tony Gonzalez returned for one more crack at the Super Bowl and no one was questioning that as unrealistic.
Atlanta has won four games since then and travel to San Francisco for what will likely be the last game to ever be played at Candlestick Park.
"They've had some close losses and some games that haven't gone their way," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "This year, more than any year I've been coaching or in this league, everybody's fighting tooth and nail for these wins and this will be no different on Monday night."
San Francisco would clinch a playoff spot with a win and is looking to latch on to the No. 5 seed. If it can leap either Carolina or New Orleans for that spot, there remains a chance the team could play another game at the 'Stick as a No. 5 seed against the No. 6 in the NFC Championship Game.
Last year, the 49ers went into the playoffs as the No. 2 seed and Atlanta the No. 1.
For Gonzalez, who played both football and basketball at nearby Cal, the game will serve as a final hurrah in the Bay Area. Gonzalez ranks No. 1 all-time among tight ends with 109 touchdown receptions, while 49ers tight end Vernon Davis ranks tied for seventh on that list with 52.
"I've not gotten to personally know him," Harbaugh said of Gonzalez. "Just through watching him like other coaches or fans would. A fabulous, fabulous player. A future Hall of Fame player. And, he does not look like a guy that's playing his final year.
"So, he's very much a top-notch competitor."
For 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, the stakes don't change much week to week and it's no different in Candlestick's final game.
"I think for us, we want to leave Candlestick with a win," he said. "That's what we're worried about."
The 49ers are tied with Baltimore with an NFL-best four-game winning streak.
SERIES HISTORY: 75th regular-season meeting. 49ers lead series, 44-29-1. This game had much more allure to it when the schedule came out with their most recent meeting a 28-24 49ers win in the NFC Championship Game a year ago.
--With fullback Bruce Miller out for the season, the bulk of his snaps will go to Anthony Dixon. A natural running back, Dixon has spent time over the last two seasons working at fullback to make himself more employable. He hasn't played much at fullback during the season, but did take snaps there in the preseason
"(He) will step up and do a great job, as he has been doing in that backup fullback role," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "I know we'd like to, at times he'd like to be running the ball more, but never a complaint about that. And, you never have to worry about AD's effort and I look forward to watching him compete."
--The team added Will Tukuafu to the 53-man roster after Miller's injury for depth at both fullback and on the defensive line. Tukuafu spent the majority of the 2010 season on the 49ers practice squad, but was elevated to the 53-man roster later that season and was there until being waived/injured on Sept. 10. He has practiced at fullback and on the defensive line for the 49ers.
"Is it possible that Will Tukuafu in an emergency situation could play defensive line?" Harbaugh said. "Yes. We would just insert him into the defensive line if that were the case."
BY THE NUMBERS: 204 - The amount of wins the 49ers have at Candlestick Park, which ranks tops in the NFL for a team's wins at one stadium.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "What are we talking, hearsay here? Well, in Judge Judy's court, hearsay is not admissible evidence. I think we can all agree that an unnamed source is hearsay. Would we not?" - Coach Jim Harbaugh, when asked about his rumored candidacy for the job at the University of Texas.
NFC PLAYOFFS AT A GLANCE:
CLINCHED: Seattle - playoff spot
Seattle clinches NFC West division and home-field advantage throughout NFC playoffs with:
1) SEA win or tie OR
2) SF loss or tie
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
New Orleans clinches NFC South division and a first-round bye with:
1) NO win
New Orleans clinches a playoff spot with:
1) ARI loss OR
2) NO tie + SF loss or tie OR
3) NO tie + ARI tie OR
4) SF loss + ARI tie
Carolina clinches a playoff spot with:
1) CAR win OR
2) CAR tie + ARI loss OR
3) CAR tie + SF loss OR
4) ARI loss + SF loss
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
San Francisco clinches a playoff spot with:
1) SF win OR
2) ARI loss OR
3) SF tie + ARI tie
Philadelphia clinches NFC East division with:
1) PHI win + DAL loss or tie OR
2) PHI tie + DAL loss
Chicago clinches NFC North division with:
1) CHI win + DET loss or tie + GB loss
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Anquan Boldin ranks No. 1 in the NFL with 432 receiving yards on third down.
--S Eric Reid ranks tied for No. 1 among rookies with four interceptions.
--C Jonathan Goodwin (not injury related) did not practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--WR Mario Manningham (illness, knee) did not practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--DL Justin Smith (shoulder) did not practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--RB Frank Gore (ankle, knee) was limited in practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--G Mike Iupati (knee) was limited in practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--TE Vance McDonald (ankle) was limited in practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--LB Dan Skuta (foot) was limited in practice Thursday, but is expected to play against the Falcons.
--LB NaVorro Bowman (wrist) was a full participant in practice Thursday.
--CB Tarell Brown (ribs) was a full participant in practice Thursday.
--WR Michael Crabtree (ankle, wrist) was a full participant in practice Thursday.
Dare the Falcons to run the ball. It's a tough task because Atlanta ranks last in the NFL in rushing, but by dropping eight into coverage and making life difficult for quarterback Matt Ryan in that regard should make it a relatively easy game for the 49ers defense.
On the opposite side of the ball, it's important to get several people involved -- especially in the run game. Now is not the time to ride Frank Gore, it's the time to get him healthy. That means using Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon as ball carriers. Outside of Kaepernick, because of the backup situation -- Gore is the most important player on the 49ers. His freshness for the playoffs is important.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH:
--Falcons TE Tony Gonzalez vs. 49ers LBs Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman -- Gonzalez went to nearby Cal and will be playing his final game in the Bay Area with retirement on the horizon. It'll be a good opportunity to see Gonzalez, a surefire Hall of Famer, competing against two of the NFL's best.
--Falcons LT Lamar Holmes vs. 49ers OLB Aldon Smith -- Washington's Brian Orakpo had his way with Holmes last week and it won't get easier against the 49ers. Look for Smith to consistently put pressure on Matt Ryan matched up against Holmes.
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