SAN FRANCISCO -- They will knock down Candlestick Park at some point, and the thunder from NaVorro Bowman's electrifying play Monday still will be echoing when it happens.

Who could've predicted that?

But that is how it all turned out on Monday night's Candlestick farewell, which could've gone all kinds of wrong until Bowman, with help from Tramaine Brock, saved the party.

He saved a lot of things, clinched a playoff berth for the 49ers, and made himself a scintillating and last-minute part of Candlestick lore along the way in the 49ers' 34-24 victory over Atlanta.

"Thought it was one of the greatest plays I've ever seen," coach Jim Harbaugh said of the tip, Bowman's interception and 89-yard sprint for the end zone.

"I don't think I've ever been involved with a football where something that good happened in a game."

What a way to turn out the lights, if this is indeed the old stadium's final bow.

What an incredible, mood-swinging, stomach-churning, fist-pumping goodbye ... just as Atlanta was driving to either tie or steal the game.

To heighten the drama, the saving play came only minutes after Bowman botched the recovery on Atlanta's onside kick with 2:09 left, the 49ers up only 27-24.

Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan quickly moved the Falcons to the 49ers' 10-yard line as the clock ticked under the 1:40 mark.

A field goal to tie, a TD to go ahead.

And then Brock stepped in front of receiver Harry Douglas, Bowman wrestled the ball away, and ...


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"That's been the best thing I've ever seen happen in a football game," said Harbaugh, who turned 50 on Monday. "Might've been close to 'The Catch.'

"And it's the best birthday present I've ever gotten. Second only to being born. That was awesome."

Of course, Dwight Clark's TD catch to lift the 49ers over Dallas in January 1982 in the NFC Championship game is a singular and incomparable reference for the 49ers and for all of sports.

But that Harbaugh would immediately compare Bowman's TD to the most iconic moment of Bay Area sports history ... tells us all how heavy the emotions were on this night and what Harbaugh believed was at stake.

All Candlestick Park-farewell festivities and nostalgic memories aside, the current 49ers had to win this game on this night, period.

It wasn't quite do-or-die, but it certainly was do-or-dicey.

Against the woeful Falcons, on a night commemorating all the glories of past legends, the 49ers couldn't help but win this game, right?

But for one dismal half the 49ers slogged, stumbled and did not look anything resembling a championship team.

Then even after the 49ers pulled out to a 10-point lead with a second-half charge, they gave up several late scores that pushed this one back to the brink.

For one: What was Bowman, an inside linebacker, doing as the last player fielding an onside kick?

"Yeah, whatever," Harbaugh said when asked about that positioning. "I've got no fingers to point. If you're going to point fingers, point fingers.

"I'm just as happy as I can be."

Did the 49ers get confused and decide to commemorate the Dennis Erickson era instead of the Bill Walsh dynasty?

Oops.

But Bowman saved the day with the pick and run, the 49ers won to get to 11-4, and that guaranteed the 49ers a spot in the postseason, most likely as the NFC's fifth seed.

It also prevented what potentially could've been a win-or-get-eliminated matchup in Arizona on Sunday for the regular-season finale.

There were issues, no doubt.

There were problems on offense (only 113 yards and five first downs in the first half as quarterback Colin Kaepernick struggled to find a rhythm).

There were problems on defense (all those Atlanta points to come back in the fourth quarter).

The 49ers trailed 10-3 at halftime, and then looked shaky again in the late-going of the game, protecting the lead.

So what was the mood as this game was caving in there for a while?

"Just that we were resolute," Harbaugh said. "We were going to win it by any means possible.

"A lot of things happen in a football game and our guys fought to the end."

They salvaged this one. They saved this one. The 49ers did what they had to do, at the very last moment they could.

There could be one more playoff game at Candlestick if some unlikely scenarios occur, but if this game is the last one, it was the right way to do it.

With the crowd drained, with the noise still ringing, with the head coach bellowing, and the newest and last Candlestick memory instantaneously legendary.

Read Tim Kawakami's Talking Points blog at blogs.mercurynews.com/kawakami. Contact him at tkawakami@mercurynews.com.