49ers-Falcons: What we learned

Art Spander, The Sports Xchange
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.

What the 49ers said
"The buildup (was) to the final regular-season game at the iconic Candlestick Park. I love history, I appreciate history as much as anyone, but for the men that were in the arena it's about the future. This game was about that -- what our destiny was." -- Coach Jim Harbaugh.

What the Falcons said
"Well, you can't jump offside on third down on the first drive. (Our defense) had a third down, and we were off the field on third-and-long, but we had a third-and-20 pass-interference call. Those were two crucial plays." -- Coach Mike Smith.

What we learned about the 49ers
1. Championship teams have big-play athletes, as the 49ers do. It seemed certain Atlanta would get a field goal to tie or a touchdown to win, but linebacker NaVorro Bowman grabbed an interception to make San Francisco a winner.
"I don't know where it ranks in Candlestick history," safety Donte Whitner said, "but it should be up there. After the onside kick, I think we were all shocked. We knew we had to make a play on defense."
2. As they used to say in the Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Roger Craig days of the 1980s and '90s, the 49ers possess a multitude of weapons. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick keeps the opposition off balance with his running and passing. Running back Frank Gore punches through holes, and wide receivers Anquan Boldin and Michael Crabtree catch everything.
"We were a little off in the first half," said Kaepernick, who passed for 197 yards and ran for 51. "We came out in the second half and executed."

What we learned about the Falcons
1. Despite their record, the Falcons continue to battle. Seemingly out of it, trailing by 10 points with five minutes remaining, they had a chance to win or tie until Matt Ryan's pass was intercepted with just more than a minute left.
"We had a lot of opportunities in a lot of games this year, and we just haven't found a way to win," Ryan said. "Same thing tonight."
2. The Falcons outplayed the Niners in the first half, holding San Francisco to three points and 113 yards, showing how well Atlanta can perform on defense.
"When you look at the whole season," linebacker Stephen Nicholas said, "we've had a couple of games like that. But we're not a team that's going to lay down. In the first half, we were getting our job done. Then we had a few missed plays here, a couple penalties there."

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