Here is a link to my Tuesday column about how NaVorro Bowman saved the game and the season for the 49ers. The full column appears below:


When the 49ers’ season was about to take a strange turn, a U-turn, a very bad turn, their best player saved them.

NaVorro Bowman.

A minute and a half remained and the Falcons had driven to the 49ers’ end zone, right to the 10-yard line. They were breathing into the end zone. And Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan was in a groove, feeling it, doing it.

A touchdown would have given the Falcons the game. Obviously. And a field goal would have tied it and then there would have been overtime. The risks make you dizzy.

And, if they lost, the Niners were staring at going to Arizona next week and playing a one-and-done game. Either they’d be in the playoffs or they’d be out. No post season no nothing. And Ryan dropped back and stood tall and threw a pass over the middle to receiver Harry Douglas — strange call that pass over the middle — and Niners’ cornerback Tramaine Brock tipped the ball and it squirted, it fled, it flew into the air.

And there was Bowman. Catching it. With a gasp he ran down the field, steamed 89 yards into the end zone. At the edge of the end zone, he leaped, flew onto the ground for the score. He looked like a kid doing a belly flop. The sheer joy of it.

And the Niners won — would win. Bowman, their best player, saved them.

How fitting.

As Bowman stood up and gathered himself — green grass stains streaking his jersey — and as he started to jog along the west sideline toward his teammates who were going out of their skulls, Jim Harbaugh rushed over to him on the field. On his face, Harbaugh had a grin as big as Alaska. He yelled something at Bowman. He ran over to Bowman.

He put his arm around Bowman’s back — near Bowman’s waist. And he held on. God, did Harbaugh hold on. He escorted Bowman back to the bench refusing to let go of this man who saved his season.

Afterward, Harbaugh came to the interview room, the smile still there. It’s like the smile was now permanent on his face. I asked what he thinks of Bowman. Harbaugh lifted his cap, ran his hand across the top of his head. He smiled even more.

“That’s been the best thing I’ve ever seen happen in a football game,” he gushed. “It might’ve been close to ‘The Catch.’”

Note: Harbaugh turned 50 on Monday. “And it’s the best birthday present I’ve ever gotten,” he said. “Second only to being born. That was awesome.”

We understand his point. So much depends on being born.

Harbaugh described the play this way: “It was a great play by T. Brock and a great play by NaVorro Bowman. It looked like a pick-and-roll in basketball.”

It did, Bowman grabbing the ball like Stephen Curry behind a screen and running fast — faster than anyone ever had seen him run.

The 49ers are lucky they won, are lucky Bowman was born, to be precise. Frankly, there was something weird about the whole 49ers’ enterprise on Monday night. They played their final game ever at Candlestick Park (though a postseason game is possible). For a while, they seemed in a state of amazement. All that history going on around them and all those former 49ers on the premises — Jerry and Steve and Dwight and Brent and Eddie.

It’s like the current Niners were afraid they couldn’t live up to the past. Who knows? It’s a fact they trailed the Falcons 10-3 at the half and they weren’t playing offense and they weren’t playing much defense. And it was very ugly.

All this against a team that didn’t want to be there. Didn’t want to play. The Falcons came into the game with a record of 4-10 and had nothing to play for. If I know football players, and I do, the Falcons were playing not to get injured, were not actually playing to win, just to survive. Some already had terminated their leases in Atlanta and shipped home their families and their pianos and their weight machines and their Rolling Stones Greatest Hits CDs.

And the Niners were trailing those Falcons — more pigeons than falcons.

And then the second half happened.

Give the 49ers’ coaches credit. They made adjustments. Sure, they did. But let’s get real. Someone in the home locker room must have mentioned the Niners were playing Atlanta and Atlanta was eager to phone it in if the Niners just would give them a chance. For the Niners, it merely was just a matter of getting serious.

And that’s exactly what they did. The 49ers’ offense, which had gone to Slumber Land, got serious. And the Falcons’ defense threw in the towel. Not the Falcons’ offense. Offense is way easier to play than defense. But the defense decided it wasn’t worth the effort.

And that means in the second half, the 49ers unloaded their entire offensive playbook on the Falcons’ defense, and had a ball doing it. You want the read-option? We’ll give you read-option. You want Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter running their heads off? You got it. You want Colin Kaepernick running and throwing like he used to run and throw? Gone with the wind. No problem.

The Falcons’ defenders saw those guys coming and they whiffed. It was strictly a business decision, a matter of personal safety. And who could blame them?

So what did the 49ers accomplish by beating the Falcons-Pigeons by the skin of their teeth?

Interesting question.

For starters, the 49ers qualified for the playoffs. They either will be a wild-card team (probably) or a division winner (not so probable, but possible.)

They showed their pedigree. When the yawn factor was enormous and when the opponent was half dead, they rallied themselves and did the necessary. And when they themselves were half dead — one foot in the grave — they rallied and won a great victory.

And now it’s time for the big statement about the 49ers. The playoffs loom. The 49ers have won five in a row. They recently beat the rival Seattle Seahawks. They are peaking at precisely the right time. They are dangerous. And they are confident. And they are good.

Where do they stand?

Things are hard to predict. The playoffs present a big unknown. Right now, the 49ers don’t know whom they’ll play in their first game or if that game will be home or on the road — most likely it will be on the road.

Despite all those disclaimers, the 49ers will enter the playoffs with the following. They are the best team in the National Football Conference. They are better than the Seahawks right now.

The 49ers have a championship defense and an offense that helps sometimes — just enough.

Do the Niners have the quality to play in the Super Bowl?

No question, they certainly do.

Seriously, who would you choose over them?

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.

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  1. Brett

    Good article Lowell. However I will disagree with your opinion that the Falcons played half ass and in the pretect my body mode. If I know football players, and I do, this was the Falcon’s Superbowl. They wanted this one bad to close out the season on somewhat of a good note. Beat SF on the last game potentially played at the stick, ruin SF’s chance at the playoffs, and in their own house would have been huge for them. When you play half way to protect yourself, that is when you get hurt.

    December 24th, 2013 8:37 am

  2. Ben

    it’s hard for me to buy in to the 9ers being the best in the NFC after watching their offense get shut down for most of the game by a 4-10 team with massive D-Line problems and a rookie secondary. and after seeing a one-dimensional offense pick apart a defense that’s supposed to be lock down. they won the game and i’m thrilled about that… but they were well on their way to losing when they got that lucky bounce, so i for one am not overconfident about their chances going into the postseason.

    December 24th, 2013 9:36 am

  3. Streetglide

    Atlanta is a very good team with very bad luck this year. They’ll come back next year and reestablish control of the NFC South.

    Yeah, that was their Superbowl and they darn near won it. Niners should be stronger for the experience…

    December 24th, 2013 10:12 am

  4. Matt in Newark

    I was concerned about the lack of offense in the first half. I don’t know how much of the play calling is Greg Roman vs. Jim Harbaugh, but the ESPN commentators were critical of the play calling.

    In the first half they relied too much on Kaepernick’s throwing and “cute” formations that didn’t fool the Falcons. Even Matt Maiocco wrote that Kap and Gore ignored the play call near the goal line in the second half. I’m beginning to wonder whether the play calling has a meaningful purpose behind it.

    The other concern I’ve noticed in this game and throughout the season is how bad the refs are. Donte Whitner cannot catch a break. He hits like Ronnie Lott but gets penalized for it. The football refs are like the NBA refs. The game is too fast for them, so they make imaginary foul calls.

    December 24th, 2013 10:30 am

  5. Mighty joe

    If you don’t think Matt Ryan and the rest of the Falcons offense didn’t play to win, you weren’t watching the same game I was. After the int, needing a miracle with 130 to play down ten nobody would have blamed the Falcons for giving up. But they didn’t. The narrative going in was that the Falcons were pansies, sacrificial lambs. Apparently they didn’t get the memo.

    December 24th, 2013 10:42 am

  6. Jimmy

    The Niners glaring deficiency this season is coaching. They were ill prepared for that onsides kick which nearly lost them the game. The offense seems lost for large chunks of these games. Harbaugh’s child-like antics on the sidelines is tiring. It’s getting hard to pull for this team. They have the players. They lack the direction.

    December 24th, 2013 11:01 am

  7. Mark M

    It felt like the Niners mailed in that first half. It was brutal. Too much shopping, celebrating, something….? Then they got serious about winning in the second half. But Atlanta jumped on the opportunity and played inspired football, even after they got down. Ryan is good and it showed. We were fortunate to pull that one out. We’re not very good at putting a full game together right now. I was hoping to see improvement, but it really just looked like they did the bare necessity and it just barely was enough. Not very inspiring, but fun to watch on cold night with some buds with brews.

    If we are the best team in the NFC right now, and we might be, it’s mostly because the top contenders are sputtering to close the season.

    December 24th, 2013 11:08 am

  8. mbabco

    “The Niners glaring deficiency this season is coaching.” Same coaches got the team to the NFC Championship game and the Super Bowl the past two seasons. The 49ers are 11-4 and could easily be 13-2 (Carolina & New Orleans barely beat them). Seems like the coaches must be doing something right.

    December 24th, 2013 1:26 pm

  9. Mighty joe

    @Jimmy: I’m not going to say our coaches are infallible or anything but when you win 35 games, the division twice and go to one Super Bowl in your 1st three seasons you’re doing your job. One can disapprove of the antics but you can’t argue with success.

    December 24th, 2013 3:07 pm

  10. htwaits

    Lowell, how can you leave the onside kick out of the NaVorro Bowman part of your story? Huh? Huh?

    Enjoy the love of your family and some great wine throughout the holidays.

    December 24th, 2013 4:01 pm

  11. chris

    I’d say Matt Ryan saved the Niners season more than Bowman. Sure Bowman gets credit for being in position to make the pic, but it literally fell right in his lap. Ryan is known for his second half meltdowns in games like in last years title game. And he paniced on that last play by forcing it to Douglass when he’s got Roddy White being covered man to man by one Niner corner. And Douglass hit the ball into the air which always leads to a turnover. Bowman coulduv felldown and the game was still over so his TD run was meaningless except for entertainment value. And there’s several teams that can beat the Niners and most likely will……Eagles, Bears and Panthers all have enough to do it.

    December 24th, 2013 5:55 pm

  12. Johnc

    “A championship defense and just enough offense. This is a carbon copy of the 2011 team that lost to the Giants in the playoffs.

    Atlanta did not mail it in. As you indicated the Niners actually adjusted at halftime and began to throw the kitchen sink at the Atlanta defense who were more off balance than in a quit mode.
    How can the Niners be the best in the NFC when Atlanta should have tied them or beat them at the end of the game ? They were lucky to get that bounce into Bowman’s arms.

    December 24th, 2013 6:35 pm

  13. hacksaw

    Falcons came to play. They were still trying with 5 seconds left!

    That game was a hard setup for the team. On one hand it is an emotional goodbye with 49er royalty present and on the other it is a real football game against an opponent that wanted to play their best. Pressure on the team to not screw up the Candlestick farewell.

    I think now that they are in they play better next week and look sharper.

    December 24th, 2013 11:46 pm

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