SAN FRANCISCO — The San Francisco 49ers triumphantly bid a likely farewell to Candlestick Park on Monday night, and as a result, they clinched a playoff berth for the 23rd time in 43 seasons at the iconic, Bay-front stadium.
A harrowing, 34-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons guaranteed at least a wild-card playoff berth for the defending NFC champs, who are going to their third postseason in three under coach Jim Harbaugh.
A third straight NFC West title remains a remote possibility, but only if the 49ers (11-4) win Sunday at Arizona (10-5) and the first-place Seattle Seahawks (12-3) lose at home for the second straight week. Seattle will be hosting the St. Louis Rams (7-8).
As was the case in last season’s NFC Championship meeting, the 49ers needed a second-half comeback to fend off the Falcons (4-11), and once again NaVorro Bowman provided the heroic finish.
Bowman, who batted down a fourth-down pass to seal the NFC title game, came through Monday night with an 89-yard interception return for a touchdown with 70 seconds remaining in Candlestick’s storied history.
Only a minute earlier, Bowman watched an onside kick bounce past him and get recovered by the Falcons, who were looking to wipe out a 10-point deficit. They had pulled to within 27-24 when soon-to-retire tight end Tony Gonzalez caught a 2-yard touchdown pass with 2:09 left.
Tramaine Brock made an interception in the end zone as time expired. That was fitting, considering it was Brock who broke up a pass to Harry Douglas that Bowman snagged and returned for the playoff-clinching touchdown.
The 49ers figured to have secured a victory with 5:04 remaining on Frank Gore’s 1-yard touchdown plunge, giving them a 27-17 lead. It was his ninth touchdown of the season, the second-most of his career, and it was set up by Kendall Hunter’s 45-yard run to the Falcons 2.
After entering halftime with a 10-3 deficit, the 49ers offense came out strong as Colin Kaepernick engineered three consecutive scoring drives. Once he dove across the goal line on a 3-yard touchdown run, the 49ers owned a 20-10 lead with 12:34 remaining.
But the Falcons answered with Roddy White catching a 39-yard touchdown pass over safety Eric Reid with 8:34 remaining to make it 20-17.
Wideouts Michael Crabtree and Anquan Boldin were instrumental in a go-ahead touchdown drive out of halftime, even if the true spark came when a third-down incompletion got nullified by Osi Umenyiora’s offside penalty.
Kaepernick followed that defensive miscue by finding Crabtree for 47- and 19-yard completions, and Boldin later made a 10-yard touchdown catch behind the blocking of tight ends Vernon Davis and Vance McDonald for a 10-10 tie.
It was Boldin’s sixth touchdown catch of the season, and earlier in the game, he eclipsed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the sixth time in his 11-year career.
The 49ers defense retained the momentum when it stopped Steven Jackson for a 1-yard loss on third-and-1 near midfield, with Willis, Aldon Smith, Bowman and Justin Smith clogging the lane.
Phil Dawson hit a 30-yard field goal to push the 49ers back on top, 13-10, with 3:16 remaining in the third quarter. It was Dawson’s 26th consecutive successful field-goal attempt, an ongoing franchise record.
The 49ers faced a 10-3 halftime deficit after allowing the Falcons to score 10 unanswered points.
The Falcons surged ahead 7-3 with 9:53 left in the first half when Jackson scored on a 2-yard run. One snap earlier, Donte Whitner drew an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for a hit on Jackson that broke up a potential completion. But the key to that drive came earlier, on Drew Davis’ 59-yard catch-and-run to the 5.
Matt Bryant’s 35-yard field goal pushed the Falcons’ lead to 10-3 with five seconds left in the first half.
Dawson made a 49-yard field goal to stake the 49ers to a 3-0 lead on the 49ers’ opening series.