San Jose Mercury News, Josie Lepe) MANDATORY CREDIT; MAGS OUT; NO SALES, Associated Press
SAN FRANCISCO — For everyone who figured the San Francisco 49ers might stumble after reaching the Super Bowl considering their tougher schedule, added pressure and a much-improved division nemesis, the reigning NFC champions are headed back to the playoffs.
With plenty of momentum.
Despite a pair of earlier two-game skids, they still have a chance at another NFC West crown, if all goes right in Week 17. Not too far off from the way they hoped it would go down the December stretch.
San Francisco (11-4) is riding a five-game winning streak after a thrilling 34-24 win against Atlanta on Monday night. If the Niners win at Arizona on Sunday and Seattle loses at home to St. Louis, they would capture a third straight division crown in improbable fashion.
"It means a lot," linebacker Patrick Willis said. "One of the things we talked about all year is that we knew what it was going to be like. Everybody expected us to just coast right through the season and be easy. But as you know we went through a little bit of adversity, and people were like, 'Well, maybe they're not the team that we thought they were.' But we just stayed together and we have another chance now to go make something happen."
In a ceremonious and nostalgic send off for Candlestick Park's regular-season finale — with the football and baseball dignitaries of past decades in the house — fans departed from Candlestick Point late Monday with a glimmer of hope there still might be one more game in the iconic venue. It would happen if the 49ers win, Seahawks lose and Carolina falls at Atlanta.
Such a scenario seemed an afterthought only a few weeks back, when San Francisco was 8-4, the Seahawks (12-3) sat at 11-1 and were poised to be the runaway NFC West winner.
There was a time the 49ers were in jeopardy of missing the playoffs altogether.
"It's great, especially to get the win that gets us back in the tournament, to get back where we left off last year, and hopefully we can get the job done," running back Frank Gore said. "That was a great win, and it took all of us to get the job done, and I think that's what it's going to take for us to move forward to get it in this tournament. It's going to take all of us to make plays to get back to where we left off last year."
Things can change fast in this league.
Just when the Falcons were driving with a chance to win after Matt Ryan led two late touchdown drives, Tramaine Brock broke up a pass to Harry Douglas. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman grabbed the ball for an interception and ran 89 yards for a touchdown with 2:09 remaining.
"I was, and still am, happier than a pig in slop," coach Jim Harbaugh said on two occasions Monday, revealing a new catchphrase one day after celebrating his 50th birthday with a wild, crucial win.
Nobody wanted to lose in a festive farewell for The Stick.
Afterward, 49ers CEO Jed York scurried up on stage in the north end zone to stand alongside his successful uncle, former owner Eddie DeBartolo Jr. In that moment, with a sellout crowd cheering, the past and future of a storied franchise stood together with the same mission of winning Super Bowls for years to come.
DeBartolo, the honorary captain for Candlestick Park's likely last hurrah, handed the game ball to York. Then, a fireworks show followed, with Boyz II Men playing "It's So Hard To Say Goodbye to Yesterday" in a concert fitting of the iconic venue that hosted the Beatles' final gig.
The 49ers hope there is much more to cheer before the season ends.
For months last winter, and into spring and summer offseason workouts, the 49ers were stung by how close they came to the franchise's sixth championship. San Francisco lost 34-31 to the Baltimore Ravens, missing three chances from the 5-yard line with less than 2 minutes remaining.
The loss snapped San Francisco's perfect 5-0 Super Bowl record.
DeBartolo has no problem making bold predictions about this year's team.
"This team is on a mission, I can see it," he said. "I think they're a team of destiny this year. There will be no first-and-goal on the 5. They're going. They're going to win the Super Bowl."
AP NFL website: www.pro32.ap.org
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