Created on Tuesday, 24 December 2013 Written by JANIE McCAULEY, AP Sports Writer
SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — NaVorro Bowman got burned on an onside kick that could have cost the 49ers a win, and the thought of that stung.
For a few plays is all.
Everything changed in a hurry when San Francisco's standout linebacker ended up with a loose ball in his hands and ran 89 yards to seal a 34-24 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night and another 49ers playoff berth in the final regular-season game at iconic Candlestick Park.
"I was the guy who missed the ball on the onside kick," Bowman said. "My coach (Jim Leavitt) just said let it go, move on to the next play. It kind of stayed on my back, but I was able to overcome it and make a play."
Tramaine Brock broke up a pass intended for Harry Douglas and Bowman grabbed the ball and started running.
"Just kind of pick-and-roll like," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "That's the best thing I've ever seen happen in a football game. It might have been close to 'The Catch.'"
Bowman certainly added a memorable moment to the long list of them at The Stick, where Dwight Clark's winning catch from Joe Montana in the 1981 NFC championship game that sent San Francisco to its first Super Bowl title — "The Catch" — was honored as the No. 1 play ever as they were counted down during each 2013 home game.
"Somebody just mentioned to me they're going to have to redo the top-10 plays at Candlestick," Bowman said, laughing.
Here are five things we learned from the 49ers' fifth straight victory:
SURGING SAN FRANCISCO: Anquan Boldin knows all about the supposed challenges facing a team that reached the last Super Bowl. He won a ring last February for the Baltimore Ravens against his current 49ers.
He believes San Francisco (11-4) is poised for another special run and playing its best football at the perfect time.
What seemed unthinkable only a few weeks back, the Niners still have a chance at a third straight NFC West title and first-round playoff bye.
They will be division champions if they win at Arizona next Sunday and the Seattle Seahawks lose at home to St. Louis.
"There's a lot of history of teams that make it to the Super Bowl don't always do so well the next season," Boldin said. "So for us to be consistent and get in the playoffs, getting in the playoffs gives us a chance."
CLOSE BUT NO CIGAR: Maybe that narrow loss to San Francisco in the NFC title game last season was a sign of things to come in 2013 for Atlanta (4-11). The Falcons won eight games a year ago by less than seven points to reach the conference championship game that they lost 28-24 to the 49ers. Atlanta has lost six games this season by fewer than seven points and that doesn't include this game, where they were 10 yards away from taking the lead before the deflected interception delivered another crushing defeat.
"Same old story for us," tight end Tony Gonzalez said. "The whole year we've been fighting and fighting, clawing and scratching to put ourselves in good position to go out there and get it done. We just didn't come up with the play."
ONSIDE KICK: After failing to stop the 49ers on their first four second-half drives, Falcons coach Mike Smith didn't hesitate to call for an onside kick after cutting the deficit to 27-24 with 2:09 to play even with all three timeouts remaining. It helped that a personal foul moved the kickoff to the 50. But Smith said he was calling for the onside kick anyway and the move paid off when Jason Snelling made a one-handed recovery at the 30.
"The way that we had played defense there in the second half, it had no bearing on it," Smith said. "We had a tough time stopping them."
KAEPERNICK'S MOMENT: Colin Kaepernick has left his mark on Candlestick Park in one short year as an NFL starter, maybe not close to the legacies of Hall of Fame quarterbacks Joe Montana and Steve Young before him, but a mark nonetheless.
Trailing 10-3 coming out of halftime, Kaepernick delivered the kind of clutch second half that made all of the former greats in attendance confident about the franchise going forward.
San Francisco put up 169 yards of offense in the third quarter alone after managing 113 the entire first half. Kaepernick ran for a 4-yard touchdown and threw a 10-yard score to Boldin.
While his line wasn't overly impressive — 13 for 21 for 197 yards with three sacks — he kept his team on a nice roll with one game left before the playoffs.
"He kept the chains moving, whether it be with his legs or his arms," Boldin said.
IMPROVED PASSING GAME: Tight end Vernon Davis got poked in the right eye and was limited to no catches for the first time all season, while also having his streak of consecutive games with a touchdown catch snapped at five.
Still, Boldin and Michael Crabtree did their part to carry the load in an improving passing game.
Boldin had six catches for 72 yards and Crabtree five for 102 in his fourth game back following a lengthy recovery from Achilles surgery.
"Our guys didn't want to lose," Davis said. "They wanted the game. So as a team we came together collectively and just kept pounding away."
AP Sports Writer Josh Dubow contributed to this report.