Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Stars Shine Brightest

It seemed fitting that the final game at venerable Candlestick Park would take place on the stage of Monday Night Football. Candlestick Park hosted more Monday Night Football games than any other, and it almost always featured some kind of memorable performance from one of the hosts. During the era of 49ers dominance in the 1980s and into the 1990s, it seemed like their best players always raised their game a little higher under the National spotlight. Since 1983, the 49ers hosted 29 Monday Night Football games (and a record 36 overall) and won an astonishing 22 of those games, and it usually included Jerry Rice stealing the show, or Joe Montana rising to the occasion, or Ronnie Lott and Charles Haley spearheading a defensive masterpiece, or Steve Young picking apart a defense. Recently, Frank Gore has shown a flair for this spotlight and Colin Kaepernick had his own coming out party last year on a Monday Night at Candlestick. Monday night, Candlestick Park went out with one final blast, as NaVorro Bowman saved the 49ers from certain disaster by intercepting a Matt Ryan pass with 1:10 to play and dashing 89 yards for a Touchdown to clinch not just a 34-24 victory, but also put the 49ers back in the playoffs.

Ostensibly, any sort of victory would have been satisfactory for the 49ers and their fans, but this game certainly ended up a bit hairier than they would have liked. Though this was certainly circled as a marquee matchup when the schedule was released, since the 49ers met, and beat, the Falcons last January in the NFC Championship game, the season took these teams in vastly different directions. Though the 49ers have, to this point, continued the success they've had under Jim Harbaugh, the Falcons have struggled, suffered through injuries and basically flopped (in spite of being mostly the same team that was a whisker of the Super Bowl last season), coming into the game a miserable 4-10 and looking only to spoil the 49ers party.

Early on, the Falcons certainly appeared ready to do some spoiling. Though the 49ers offense marched down the field on their first drive, with Colin Kaepernick hitting Anquan Boldin on a pair of passes (which put Boldin over 1,000 yards for the season in the process, a testament to how valuable he's been to the 49ers), the drive stalled when Kaepernick took a bit of a panic sack and the 49ers, as has been their wont, settled for a Phil Dawson Field Goal. Though the drive appeared to set a tone, it was really a false alarm, because that Field Goal ended up being the only consequential offense the 49ers would generate in the 1st half of the game. Atlanta Defensive Coordinator Mike Nolan, former head coach of the 49ers, dialed up some exotic blitzes and schemes designed to make Kaepernick uncomfortable, and for the most part it succeeded. He was throwing too early, or taking a sack, and generally the offense just stagnated.

In spite of the defense putting up their general solid effort, they still managed to let Atlanta sustain one drive when Ryan hit Drew Davis for a 59-yard gain on a 3rd down play early in the 2nd Quarter. This was simply a blown play. Davis sort of got lost in traffic in the middle of the field, but Ryan was able to hit him over the middle in front of Carlos Rogers, and Davis basically outran everyone most of the way down the field. This set up a Steven Jackson Touchdown (in spite of being on a different team, Jackson still seems to do it to the 49ers), giving Atlanta a 7-3 lead. The 49ers couldn't mount a response, and eventually Robert McClain broke a long punt return that set up a Falcons Field Goal as time expired in the half. The Falcons led 10-3 and this game was shaping up disastrously.

But the 49ers righted themselves in the second half. Aided by an egregious offsides penalty on Atlanta that helped extend the drive, the 49ers zipped down the field to start the 3rd Quarter, the drive capped off by a Boldin Touchdown and aided by a pair of clutch catches by Michael Crabtree, one of which went for 45 yards on a 3rd down play, and the second for 19 yards to set up Boldin's score. One drive later, the 49ers regained the lead on Dawson's second Field Goal, and one drive after that, Kaepernick scored himself on a 4-yard Quarterback Draw. All the while, the Falcons could do nothing, and so the game seemed to be fairly stable with the 49ers ahead 20-10 early in the 4th Quarter.

But the action was just beginning. The Falcons embarked on a painstakingly slow drive that appeared to be headed nowhere, until out of nowhere Ryan reared back and hit Roddy White on a long bomb for a 39-yard Touchdown that cut the lead to 3 with 8 and a half minutes to play. The 49ers, on their ensuing possession, set out to eat up some clock behind Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter. The problem was, the Falcons defense proved themselves pretty much incapable of stopping the run, so instead of chewing up yards and killing the clock, Gore and Hunter pretty much ran wild, including a 45-yard run from Hunter that set up Gore to score on a 2-yard Touchdown, having used up only 3 minutes worth of time. Nonetheless, with 5 minutes to go and the 49ers ahead 27-17, it appeared unlikely that the Falcons could mount the necessary comeback and Frank Gore would, appropriately, go down as the man to score the last Touchdown at Candlestick Park.

That, however, was nowhere close to the reality. The Falcons, perhaps sensing the moment and an opportunity to prove they're better than their record might indicate, refused to fade into oblivion and mounted a spirited, hurry-up drive, with Ryan moving the Falcons down the field at will and eventually getting them within 3 when he hit Tony Gonzalez for a Touchdown with just over 2 minutes remaining. So, all the 49ers had to do was recover the onside kick, right? Sounds simple enough, but sometimes funny things happen. And a funny thing did happen when the kick sort of knuckled past NaVorro Bowman and bounced into no-man's land, where Jason Snelling recovered for the Falcons, putting them well within Field Goal range with 2 minutes to go and 3 Time Outs.

Now, this wasn't what anyone expected. All of a sudden, not only were the 49ers looking at potentially an Overtime game, but the Falcons certainly had enough time and weapons to score a Touchdown and win the game. This would have been a real kick in the ass to everyone expecting the 49ers to shut down the Falcons and close Candlestick Park in a blaze of glory. It was starting to look, to me, like the unmitigated disaster that was the Final Game at Shea Stadium. Ryan started the drive strong, hitting consecutive passes to move the Falcons down to the 49ers 10 yard line on a 2nd down and 1 play. But just when disaster seemed imminent, that old Candlestick Park Monday Night spirit showed itself one final time.

The 49ers blitzed Ryan on the next play, in an attempt to force him to throw a pass quicker than he would have liked, or, perhaps, sack him altogether. They didn't sack him, but his pass to Harry Douglas was quick and short, enough that Tramaine Brock was able to break up the pass and bat the ball away. This normally results in an incomplete pass, but for NaVorro Bowman flying in from the fray to pick the ball out of the air and dash in the other direction with nothing in front of him but open field and a convoy of 49ers behind him, ready to lead him into the end zone and leap on him when he got there. Bowman had blitzed on the play, but had ended up getting blocked out and lost in traffic. Unable to get to Ryan, he instead went after the ball, which was fortuitous since the ball ended up getting knocked practically right into his arms. Certainly, it was the right place at the right time for Bowman, but it's fitting that he would be the one to make the game-clinching play to close out Candlestick Park. He's been making big plays all season long. He may get overlooked next to Patrick Willis (and let's not overlook Willis in this game—he played like a man possessed all night, ending up with an absurd 18 tackles and generally disrupting everything all game), but he's become a major star in his own right, and making a play like this one further enhances his reputation as one of the NFL's best Linebackers.

This was the kind of game that the Final Game at Shea Stadium should have been. A great, Championship-quality effort that was punctuated with one of those magnificent plays that will live on in team lore forever. And the end result was that it put the team in the Playoffs. So the 49ers can rest a bit easier next Sunday when they go to play in Arizona against a Cardinals team that needs a win and some help to make the Playoffs. But a win would be in their best interest, not simply just to finish on a strong note, but, though it's a longshot, should the Rams beat the Seahawks in Seattle (a tall order indeed, but one that the Cardinals accomplished on Sunday) and the 49ers win, the 49ers would end up winning the Division and Candlestick Park would live on for one more game. To say nothing of how hilarious it would be if the 49ers ended up assing the Seahawks out at the final leg after the Seahawks have been considered an overwhelming favorite all season long. But that's not something that needs to be worried about until Sunday.

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