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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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