49ers beat Falcons 34-24 to clinch playoff berth

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Dwight Clark, who authored “The Catch,” could hardly believe this is the way it ended. “That was bizarre,” Clark said after the 49ers’ 34-24 victory Monday night over the Atlanta Falcons. “It’s only fitting, right?”

Clark’s leaping grab of a Joe Montana toss in January of 1982 launched the 49ers past the Dallas Cowboys in the NFC Championship game and to their first Super Bowl championship.

It remains to be seen what will happen this season – and how NaVorro Bowman’s Pick Six to Close the ‘Stick will be remembered.

It’s even possible that there is more postseason football remaining for Candlestick Park. But there will be no question the 49ers’ regular-season finale in their home of 43 seasons will long be remembered.

On its own, Bowman’s 89-yard interception return with 70 seconds remaining had plenty of significance. The play thwarted a possible Falcons upset victory and clinched a playoff berth for the 49ers.

And it came shortly after Bowman botched an onside kick that Atlanta’s Jason Snelling recovered at the 49ers’ 30-yard line with the Falcons down by just three points.

Quarterback Matt Ryan moved to the San Francisco 10-yard line. He tried to fit a pass into wide receiver Harry Douglas just ahead of a hit from blitzing safety Eric Reid, but cornerback Tramaine Brock was there to break it up. And Bowman, who had backed off the line of scrimmage from his designed blitz, was on the spot to grab it out of the air.

He pulled in the interception -- his first of the season -- and made the sprint down the field for the longest interception return from a linebacker in club history to wrap up the 49ers’ fifth consecutive victory and send them into the playoffs in the most dramatic fashion. He was powered down the field by the energy generated by 69,732 fans and a certain head coach who was running alongside for as long as his 50-year-old legs could carry him.

“That was the best thing I’ve ever seen in a football game,” birthday boy Jim Harbaugh said.

“That was the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten,” Harbaugh said, “second only to be being born. That was awesome.”

The 49ers experienced a rebirth of sorts on Sunday night. Before Bowman’s play, it appeared the 49ers might squander their chance to clinch a playoff spot against the team they beat to go the Super Bowl a year ago. The Falcons (4-11) have fallen on hard times, but they put a major scare into the 49ers on Monday.

If the 49ers had lost Monday, they would have needed a victory over the Arizona Cardinals (10-5) to advance to the playoffs. Now, the 49ers (11-4) are solidly in the playoff field, and they still have a chance to earn the No. 1 overall seed if the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers both lose on Sunday.

“I was the guy who missed the ball on the onside kick, and our coach (Jim Leavitt) just said, ‘Let it go, move on to the next play,’” Bowman said. “We still had a shot to win, and it really got me through it.”

It certainly was not a perfect night for the 49ers’ defense. Ryan completed 37 of 48 passes for 348 yards. But the 49ers made the play that will long be remembered.

“I was trying to grab it,” Brock said. “We both kind of had it, and I thought I was going to come down with it. But (Bowman) just took it and got out of there, which made sense.”

Brock recorded his team-leading fifth interception of the season on Ryan’s desperation pass on the game’s final play. Brock made the final play, and Bowman scored the final touchdown in Candlestick history.

Well, at least in Candlestick Park’s regular-season history.

“Somebody just mentioned to me that they are going to have to redo the top 10 plays at Candlestick,” Bowman said, “so I’ll take it.”

- Matt Maiocco, CSN Bay Area

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