San Francisco, CA (SportsNetwork.com) - The San Francisco 49ers nearly squandered a chance to clinch a postseason berth Monday, but found a little late magic in what could be the final game at Candlestick Park.
NaVorro Bowman's 89-yard interception return for a touchdown late in regulation essentially sealed the Niners' 34-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons and kept San Francisco's hope of a No. 1 seed in the NFC alive.
The 49ers (11-4) need plenty of help next week to secure home-field advantage throughout the playoffs, but can breathe a sigh of relief knowing they are at least qualified for the postseason after Matt Ryan almost rallied Atlanta out of a 10-point hole.
Ryan found Tony Gonzalez for a 2-yard touchdown with 2:09 remaining to bring the Falcons within 27-24, and Jason Snelling secured the ensuing onsides kick with a one-handed snag along the sideline.
Atlanta moved to the San Francisco 10-yard line with 1:31 to play, and Ryan threw a short pass intended for Harry Douglas that was disrupted by Tramaine Brock. The ball was tipped in the air, and Bowman snagged it and went untouched the other way, diving into the end zone as a delirious Candlestick Park crowd celebrated.
"I don't think I've ever been involved in a game where something that good happened," said 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh, who turned 50 on Monday. "That was one of the greatest plays I've ever see. It looked like a pick-and-roll in basketball...and (Bowman) took it to the house."
Colin Kaepernick threw for 197 yards and a touchdown and added 51 yards and a TD on the ground for the Niners, who have rattled off five straight wins.
Frank Gore capped his 97-yard rushing night with a 1-yard plunge over the goal line to give San Francisco a 27-17 lead with 5:04 left to play.
Ryan then guided a quick 11-play, 80-yard drive that ended in Gonzalez's catch in the back of the end zone, but his deciding interception sullied his otherwise terrific performance.
Ryan completed an efficient 37-of-48 passes for 348 yards with two touchdowns and a pair of interceptions. Roddy White had 12 grabs for 141 yards and a TD in the loss.
"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."
Atlanta (4-11), which lost to San Francisco in the 2012 NFC Championship Game, went the entire season without winning back-to-back games.
Phil Dawson knocked through a 49-yard field goal on San Francisco's opening possession, but Atlanta forced the Niners to punt the next three times they touched the ball in the first half.
Drew Davis got the Falcons on the move with a 59-yard catch-and-run down to the San Francisco 5-yard line early in the second quarter. He gained a bunch of yardage after the catch with a spin move near midfield, and Steven Jackson cashed in with a 2-yard touchdown run after the Niners' Donte Whitner was flagged for unsportsmanlike conduct.
Matt Bryant tacked on a 35-yard field goal just before halftime to give Atlanta a 10-3 lead at the break, but the tide turned when the Niners marched 83 yards in just six plays after the second-half kickoff for the tying touchdown.
Michael Crabtree had a key 47-yard catch on an early third-down play and on 1st-and-goal from the 10, Anquan Boldin caught a screen pass and split several defenders en route to the end zone.
Dawson connected from 30 yards out with 3:16 remaining in the third quarter, and San Francisco's 9-play, 61-yard march stretching into the fourth ended with Kaepernick taking it in himself for a 4-yard sneak for a 20-10 lead.
Ryan and White connected on a 39-yard scoring strike with 8:34 remaining to bring the Falcons within three.
The Niners can win the NFC West with a win over the Cardinals next week coupled with a Seahawks loss to the Rams. Then they would need the Panthers to lose to the Falcons to gain the conference's No. 1 seed ... This was the 36th Monday Night Football game Candlestick Park has hosted, the most of any stadium in NFL history ... San Francisco has won six straight games on Monday night ... The 49ers are moving to football-only Levi's Stadium in nearby Santa Clara, next season ... Jackson was limited to 53 yards on 16 carries ... Crabtree and Boldin finished with 102 and 72 receiving yards, respectively.