The always quotable Jim Harbaugh had a pretty good 50th Birthday.
"That was one of the greatest plays I've ever seen," Harbaugh said. "That was the best birthday present I've ever gotten. Second, only to being born. That was awesome."
Harbaugh was referring to NaVorro Bowman's interception late in the fourth quarter that quelled a Falcons comeback that could have cost the 49ers their season. A loss Monday night paired with a loss against the Cardinals next week would have prevented a third-straight trip to the playoffs. Coming in, the 49ers had a rare chance to be the No. 1 seed or miss the postseason completely.
San Francisco appeared sluggish in the first half and fell behind 10-3 after the Falcons scored twice in the second quarter. The offense was sputtering after Vernon Davis temporarily left the game after getting poked in the eye while the defense yielded some big plays.
Donte Whitner's controversial hit on Steven Jackson on a passing play to the flat deep in 49ers' territory led to a touchdown on the next play. Whitner was charged with two personal fouls - one for the hit and another for unsportsmanlike conduct - and Jackson rolled into the end zone a play later for the game's first touchdown.
The 49ers were out gained 170 to 113 in the first half. But the home team would score on all four of its possessions in the second while netting 266 yards. Their only first-half points came on their opening drive when Phil Dawson hit a 49-yard field goal.
Bowman's interception capped a 31-point second half.
Colin Kaepernick catalyzed the second-half turnaround. After totaling 85 yards combined (69 throwing, 16 running) in the first half, he connected with Michael Crabtree on two key passes and Anquan Boldin on a bubble screen for a touchdown. The offense drove 83 yards on 10 plays to tie the game, swinging the momentum in the second half much like they did in last season's NFC Championship Game. Kaepernick finished completing 13 of 21 for 197 passing yards and a touchdown. He also ran for 51 yards and a score.
"We started to make plays, plain and simple. We got the running game going, our offensive line did a great job up front, the backs did a great job finding the holes, hitting them and going for big gains. Kap was giving us chances outside," Boldin said.
Alongside Bowman in the middle of the defense, Patrick Willis had a standout performance registering 18 tackles, three for loss and broke up a pass.
It was far and away his best game of the season. And it will go down as one of the most memorable of his career.
"My most memorable moment would be tonight," Willis said. "To see (Bowman) have that play and be running down that sideline with him and just make sure the receiver doesn't catch up with him and knock the ball out. I told him one day when we're old and grey we're going to look back at that play and say that is when we were fast. I'm glad that I'm a part of it and that we got the win today for so many reasons."
Moments before Bowman's key interception and long run, the All-Pro linebacker was the goat on a key onside kick that gave Atlanta a chance to tie or take the lead late in the game.
"He made up for what happened before that," Crabtree quipped.
Falcons' kicker Matt Bryant tapped an onside kick to his left past the 49ers' front line of their hands team. Bowman couldn't come up with the ball after it bounced awkwardly to his right. Running back Jason Snelling made an incredible play to field it with one hand before going out of bounds to give Atlanta the ball at San Francisco's 30, down just 27-24 with plenty of time to either tie it or take the lead.
"We knew going back into that series, once they got the onside kick they were going to heat it up a little bit," Donte Whitner said.
On 2nd-and-1 from the 10, defensive coordinator Vic Fangio dialed up a zero blitz overloading Atlanta's offensive line allowing safety Eric Reid to get a free run at Matt Ryan. Ryan was forced to find his hot receiver Harry Douglas on a slant to the left. It was just the second zero blitz the defense called all night, but it was one of Fangio's biggest decisions of the season. Tramaine Brock tipped the ball in the air and allowed Bowman to make the play.
"It was like a pick-and-roll in basketball. It was like pass and a pick and took it all the way to the house," Harbaugh said.
"Vic made the right call, right time. Tramaine made the right play and NaVorro was there to catch it and run it in," Whitner said.
"I told Pat (Willis) I'm good for one interception a year and I'll take that one any day," Bowman said.
"The coaches have a lot of faith in me. They put me on the hands team I learned today it's not all about hands. You've got to have some type of baseball IQ to get down and stop those short balls, but in practice they are pretty easy, but in the game they are a lot harder," said Bowman.
Avoiding a Week 17 Showdown
The Cardinals (10-5) went to Seattle and won 17-10 Sunday giving Russell Wilson his first home loss as a pro. It meant the 49ers' margin of error over their last two games was far more thin. A loss to the Falcons Monday would have meant San Francisco needed to win in Arizona to get back to the postseason to defend their conference crown.
Had the 49ers lost, next Sunday's game in Glendale Ariz. would have been tabbed one of the biggest regular season game in Cardinals' history.
"I think it's a great accomplishment," Harbaugh said of returning to the postseason for the third-straight year. "It gives you a chance. being in the playoffs gives you a chance at the ultimate chance and our guys needed this one to do that."
Instead of the Cardinals being able to control their own destiny with a win over the 49ers, they now need a Saints loss at home to Tampa Bay paired with a victory over San Francisco - a tall order. The Saints would clinch a playoff berth with victory over the 4-11 Buccaneers.
Getting in as the No. 5 seed means San Francisco will likely play either the Bears or Packers on the road in the Wild Card round. Those teams play Sunday for the division crown while Green Bay is still waiting for Aaron Rodgers to get medically cleared to play.
With a win over the Tony Romo-less Cowboys Sunday, the Eagles would wrap up the No. 3 seed (they hold the head-to-head tiebreaker over the Bears and Packers) and face the sixth seed in the opening round. Dallas will need a big performance from backup Kyle Orton to get back to the postseason for the first time since 2009.
With the Candlestick era almost officially in the rear view, Frank Gore (21 carries, 97 yards and a touchdown) is ready to return to the playoffs for that elusive trophy.
"It's great, especially to win to put us in the tournament. To get back to where we left off last year, and hopefully we can get the job done," Gore said.
"It was big, especially getting a win in the last game in Candlestick in front of all the fans...I've been here for the ups and downs. First six years were tough years for me, and also I know for the fans. The last three years have been great, been a blessing."
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