SAN FRANCISCO — On a night they cheered “The Catch” and all the San Francisco greats of old, the current 49ers looked ready to move that success 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,” San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh said. “Might’ve been close to ‘The Catch.’ ”
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 8:42 remaining and a 2-yard score to Tony Gonzalez with 2:09 left as the Falcons (4-11) 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) capitalized 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.
During an evening of fanfare and famous faces for Candlestick’s ceremonious farewell, Kaepernick took charge as his team made good on Harbaugh’s mantra: “We don’t want to be the guys who screw up the final game in Candlestick.”
“Best birthday present I’ve ever gotten, second only to being born,” quipped Harbaugh on his 50th birthday. “That was awesome.”
Boldin had a 10-yard TD catch that tied it at 10 with 12:03 left in the third, and Kaepernick scored early in the fourth.
This rematch of the NFC championship game featuring teams headed in opposite directions was another thriller. The 49ers won 28-24 last January in Atlanta to return to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years.
Boldin caught six passes for 72 yards and went over 1,000 yards receiving for the sixth time in his career.
With the future of the 49ers on display, there were plenty of glimpses to the past – and five Super Bowl titles.
“There’s a lot of history in this stadium,” Bowman said. “For this to be the last game, we cannot leave it with an ‘L.’ So I’m glad we got the ‘W.’ ”
Joe Montana’s winning touchdown pass to Dwight Clark – dubbed “The Catch” – was celebrated at halftime as the No. 1 moment during a top-10 countdown during each home game this year. The special spot in the right corner of the north end zone was marked with a gold dot. That victory in the NFC championship game after the 1981 season sent San Francisco to its first Super Bowl title.
The 49ers are set to move into $1.2 billion Levi’s Stadium at team headquarters in Santa Clara while Candlestick waits out its implosion day.
White had 12 catches for 141 yards and retiring Falcons tight end Gonzalez eight for 63 yards in his final game in the Bay Area, where he starred collegiately at California. Ryan wound up 37 of 48 for 348 yards but his late mistakes were costly as has been the case in a 1-7 road record.
Hall of Famers Steve Young and Jerry Rice played catch on the field before the game, and two baseball greats with their own Hall of Fame distinction – Willie Mays and Willie McCovey – were on hand and waved to cheering fans.
San Francisco’s 31 second-half points were its most since scoring 35 against Atlanta on Sept. 15, 1985, according to STATs.