On Monday Night Football, the San Francisco 49ers (11-4) said goodbye to Candlestick Park in storybook fashion, epitomizing what this stadium was with one last dramatic finish.
It could not have been written better.
But aside from the nostalgia of what took place, the 49ers made a lot of things happen that were relevant to the season in front of them. For one, San Francisco officially clinched playoff berth once again, making Jim Harbaugh the first coach in the team’s history to do that in his first three seasons, via 49ers PR Director Bob Lange.
It also put San Francisco in the driver’s seat for Week 17, making it a contender to take the No. 1 seed in the NFC.
The pressure is now on the Seattle Seahawks, because if they lose and the 49ers win, they'll swap their postseason positions. Moreover, the Niners are also beginning to look like the strongest team in the conference again, currently holding the NFL's longest winning streak.
There does not seem to be a team they can't get past.
All the pieces are coming together on offense, defense and special teams at just the right time, which could launch this team to a second consecutive Super Bowl appearance. Right now, they're firmly back in the chatter of league favorites. What can't they do?
With this latest win, let's take a look at some of the key takeaways as the 49ers prepare for their last game of the 2013 regular season.
Another 49ers worry was whether or not they’d be able to endure the loss of fullback Bruce Miller, who suffered a shoulder fracture last week.
He was placed on injured reserve and replaced by a committee, including fourth-string running back Anthony Dixon and defensive tackle/fullback Will Tukuafu. This is a team that loves its “22” personnel, power-rushing game and tank packages, which necessitates a bruising lead blocker.
Miller was that and more.
On Monday, the run game did not miss a beat. San Francisco totaled 199 yards on the ground on 30 attempts by three different runners, including the quarterback.
The 49ers were still running read-option plays, power plays and everything else in their book. Nothing changed from a schematic standpoint and neither did the production, for what its worth. Rotating at the fullback position, both Dixon and Tukuafu did a bang up job in the lineup for the 49ers.
In the passing game, Colin Kaepernick was looking for his true receivers more, finding Michael Crabtree on third down, rather than dumping it off. Kap had become comfortable with Miller there, which had worked, but there are certainly limitations and a downside to a fullback earning as many targets as he was.
This is a great sign for the Niners, but they’ll need to make sure it continues in the postseason where they’ll be seeing top defenses.
The 49ers' clock management has been abhorrent this season, but on Monday Night Football, it was a non-issue.
For San Francisco, this had been a lingering issue, and one it just hasn’t been able to shake.
While this wasn’t a road game, it was very encouraging to see that there were no wasted timeouts, delay-of-game penalties or false starts by players at the line because of lack of time.
Heading into this game, the 49ers were tied for second in the NFL in delay-of-games and had been burning timeouts left and right, via NFLPenalties.com.
The Niners were getting the plays called, approved and relayed to the quarterback with time to spare. It was clear to see that it aided in the overall functionality of the offense.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has habitually had slow starts in games, and only later in the game do we find out if the 49ers have it in them to come back and win. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t.
There haven’t been any dominant first-half performances against teams of equal or better standing. This is troubling because not all of their opponents are going to wait around for Kap to engineer a late-game comeback. There are better, more disciplined defenses with the offenses to keep a lead.
There needs to be more urgency and better execution by Kaepernick over four quarters of play.
Continuing on, we’re also seeing that when Kap gets hot, he seers, especially when used properly. In the second half, he came out strong, connecting on a 47-yarder, followed by a 19-yarder to Crabtree. Kap then slung one to Anquan Boldin to cap off the drive with a red-zone touchdown.
He also looked more confident as a runner in the second half.
If the 49ers are able to get a laser focus from him and optimal execution over the course of an entire game, this team will be even more of a force.
When the offense looks to be in as much of a funk as it was in the first half, when their showings are either alive or stone dead, when the players are either clicking or they’re not and there is this much talent at every single position, you have to look at the offensive staff.
Is the talent consistently being optimized?
It doesn't appear so. Sure, players have to execute, but the play-calling was questionable for a good portion of the game, mostly in the first half and in the red zone.
Fans were beginning to get a little rambunctious after a 3rd-and-4 shotgun run in the red zone was stuffed, and the Niners had to settle for yet another Phil Dawson field goal.
The excess of jumbo packages and cutesy plays, like trying to get backup guard Daniel Kilgore open in the flat for instance, made no sense.
It didn’t take long before offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s name began floating around on Twitter. Even announcer Jon Gruden was puzzled. Although the unit was able to pull it together, thanks to a couple big plays by Crabtree, there is still reason to feel uneasy about Roman being at the controls.
Not because he’s “bad,” per se, but because there is clearly a consistency issue, which makes the 49ers vulnerable.
If the offense can’t finish, the defense can. If the defense can’t finish, the offense can. If they both come up short, hey, there’s a dynamite special teams unit.
This is a complete three-phase football team, and they have continued to respond to the moment in the clutch.
This is one of the most significant takeaways about this San Francisco team as they enter the playoffs, not only because it alleviates the concerns of their slow starts to games but also because it strengthens their case as the "hot team."
According to ESPN Stats & Info, the 49ers had a 33.6 win probability before the NaVorro Bowman pick-six and a 99.8 win probability after. That 66.2 percent swing is the biggest of any defensive play this season.
With only one week left in the season, it is looking like the 49ers might have to roll through the playoffs without a second option at tight end, at least in terms of pass-catching ability.
Last year, quarterback Colin Kaepernick found solace in the No. 2 tight end, which was Delanie Walker.
More often than not, Kap was finding Walker for a few clutch plays a game, which the 49ers have not been getting out of rookie tight end Vance McDonald, who was brought in to replace Walker this year.
On Monday, he had another blunder to add to his unproductive rookie campaign, as he tripped and fell reaching for a ball on a corner route.
This isn't a good sign for the offense.
San Francisco relies heavily on the two-plus-tight end groupings, and the only value McDonald has provided there is his ability to block. He currently has a catch rate of 47 percent, bringing in just eight grabs on 17 targets this season.
While the completions have all gone for big plays, there haven't been many.
It seems like the 49ers will have to continue to work around this so they don't jeopardize their chances in the postseason. Until Kaepernick and McDonald have an offseason to get on the same page, they're going to have to shelve the tight end as a pass-catching option.
Until proven otherwise, he cannot be depended upon.
After the game, 49ers beat writer Eric Branch of the San Francisco Chronicle titled it “The Catch IV.”
Others had thrown around suggestions like “The Pick at the Stick,” or “The Return,” but the fact that fans and writers are even in another scenario where they are looking to crown another achieving moment is unbelievable.
Longtime 49er and football legend Dwight Clark told CSN Bay Area’s Matt Maiocco, “How bizarre. Only fitting right?”
Such is the magic of Candlestick Park.
In its existence, it has always had that mythical aura, which is what made it so hard to say goodbye. So many events in—not only sports lore—but also American history, went down at this particular venue. Aside from the wind, there almost seems to be a spiritual presence that impacts all the events that have taken place there.
Even though everyone was positively sure this game was going to be a sweep in San Francisco's favor, Atlanta put up a fight.
And just like that, the table was set for a dramatic finish. Linebacker NaVorro Bowman making the game-ending interception, sending the 49ers to the playoffs, embossing an era that was known for defense in one last play...it was magical.
We've said wide receiver Michael Crabtree was back before, but now he's really back.
He returned in Week 13 versus the St. Louis Rams and has started in four games since but not once has he eclipsed the century mark.
On Monday night versus Atlanta, Crabtree saw his second-most targets in the four games since he's been back in the lineup (seven), reeling in five grabs for 102 yards and a 20.4 yards-per-catch average.
At one point early on, Kap was 4-of-4 looking for Crabtree, as their symbiotic connection was on display once again. It is the ultimate game- and play-saver.
Needless to say, this was a very unique quarterback-wide receiver relationship that the 49ers proved they had been able to lean on, and now it's back.