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Niners clinch playoff spot in dramatic goodbye to Candlestick

ESPN staff
December 24, 2013 « Wenger: We should have had a penalty against Chelsea | Chartbeat test »
NaVorro Bowman leaves the field a hero after his game-clinching interception return for a touchdown © AP
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On a night they cheered "The Catch" and all the San Francisco greats of old, the current 49ers looked ready to move that success right into the future at a flashy new stadium.

In one emphatic finish, NaVorro Bowman, Colin Kaepernick and the Niners sealed their postseason berth in a ceremonious regular-season farewell for Candlestick Park.

Bowman returned an interception 89 yards for a touchdown with 1:10 remaining, and the 49ers clinched a playoff spot with a wild 34-24 victory against the Atlanta Falcons on Monday night in the likely final game at The Stick.

"That's been the best thing I've ever seen happen in a football game," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "Might've been close to 'The Catch'," he added, in reference to Candlestick's most famous moment, a Joe Montana pass to Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship game of 1982.

Tramaine Brock broke up a pass intended for Harry Douglas and Bowman got his hands on the ball and took off. He was joined in the end zone by his teammates for a jubilant dog pile.

"I always say a lot of plays are made when you run to the ball," Bowman said. "That's all I was doing was just running to the ball, trying to make a tackle, and it popped up and I was able to make a play for my team."

Matt Ryan threw a 39-yard touchdown pass to Roddy White with 8:34 remaining and a 2-yard score to Tony Gonzalez with 2:09 left as the Falcons, who have just four wins this season after hosting the NFC Championship game last season, made things interesting until the end.

Atlanta's Jason Snelling recovered the ensuing onside kick as the Falcons got the ball back and were driving for a potential go-ahead score when San Francisco (11-4) capitalised with one of its biggest takeaways yet.

"When we got the onside kick at the end, we had a great opportunity to win but it wasn't meant to be," Ryan said. "Sometimes the ball bounces in the other direction. That's been the case for us."

Kaepernick ran for a 4-yard touchdown and threw a 10-yard TD pass to Anquan Boldin, and Frank Gore scored on a 1-yard touchdown run as the 49ers used a big second half to clinch a third straight playoff season and fifth consecutive victory. They put up 169 yards in the third quarter after managing just 113 in the first half as the sellout crowd fell momentarily quiet.

San Francisco still has a slim chance at winning a third consecutive NFC West crown and earning a first-round bye if St. Louis wins at Seattle and the 49ers beat Arizona on the road. They can win the NFC's top seed with the same scenario, plus a Carolina loss at Atlanta.

This article originally appeared on ESPN.com

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