There was a great deal of pomp and circumstance surrounding Monday Night’s Niners game, seeing as how it was the last game at Candlestick Park. All sorts of people from across the spectrum of sports and entertainment came out to talk about the many memorable moments that happened there over the years—the Catch, the World Series Earthquake, the last ever Beatles concert—while all making a point to note that the place was kind of a frigid hell hole.
I personally wasn’t all that nostalgic about the park closing. I never went to a Niners game there, meaning that my few Candlestick memories are culled from pre-China Basin Giants games—not exactly the halcyon days of San Francisco baseball. My main concern for last night was that the Niners put their feet to the asses of the 4-10 Falcons and lockdown a playoff spot. I figured the combination of the Candlestick hype and the National TV broadcast would prevent the Niners from having a subpar look-ahead effort, and that they would summarily thrash a Falcons team that has been pretty terrible this year after barely losing to the Niners in the NFC Championship Game last season.
This was, uh, not exactly how things went.
The Jerry Rice Award (Most Dominant Player on the Field): Patrick Willis
The 2013 season has been a bit of a quiet one by P-Willy’s lofty standards—he’s suffered through some nagging injuries and has ceded some of the spotlight to NaVorro Bowman, who leads the team in tackles by a mile and has been so impressive that last week I said he’s been the team MVP this year. But last night was a throwback game for Willis, who had 18 tackles, spent all night flying around the field like a madman, and dished out a couple of bone-crunching hits that had me screaming KILL THAT MOTHERFUCKER PATRICK WILLIS.
It makes me happy when I get to scream that.
The Dennis Erickson Award (Offense That Forgot to Show Up): The Niners First Half Offense
This award is named in honor of the incompetent head coach of the 2004 Niners, the worst offense I’ve ever seen in San Francisco. Colin Kaepernick and Co. put together a seriously dispiriting first half, scoring just three points in the first half against a Falcons defense that has been one of the worst units in football this year. And it wasn’t just the lack of success, it was the way they did it—too many penalties, bad drops (Vernon Davis gets the lion’s share of the scorn here, not getting his feet down in bounds on one sideline route and then dropping another deep ball—he finished the day with no catches), and a general sense of ennui. They got their shit together somewhat in the second half, with Frank Gore running for 97 yards and a TD, Kaepernick gaining 51 yards rushing and a TD, Michael Crabtree putting together his first 100-yard game of the season, and Anquan Boldin scoring on a nice wide receiver screen, but on the whole, they didn’t inspire a ton of confidence.
The Jim Mora, Jr. Award (Defense That Forgot to Show Up): The Niners Defense
This award is named in honor of the incompetent defensive coordinator of the 1999 49ers, the most abysmal defense I’ve seen in San Francisco. Willis had a great game, and we’ll get to Bowman in a second, but outside of the team’s transcendent linebackers, the Niners defense basically didn’t show up. The front four didn’t get pressure on Matt Ryan, and he responded by torching the Niners secondary for 348 yards, 141 of those to Roddy White. Which I’m pretty sure is more than White had all freaking season coming into this game. Trust me, I had him on my fantasy team. But I’m not bitter about it. Not at all … At any rate, it was the worst effort of the season for a defense that thus far had played well in every single game, even the losses.
The Ahmad Brooks Award (Ridiculous Penalty That Shows That Football As We Once Knew It Is Dead): Donte Whitner
If the penalty called against Ahmad Brooks that cost the Niners the Saints game and drove me to the point of homicidal rage is the worst instance of overprotective officiating I’ve seen this year, than the personal foul called on Whitner in the second quarter is a close second. On third down, Matt Ryan slung the ball out to Steven Jackson in the flat, and Whitner proceeded to light him up with a huge hit—which drew a 15-yard penalty. Now, just watch the hit:
Whitner hit Jackson in the chest, with his shoulder. What’s he supposed to do, politely ask him to please take a knee? Take his jacket off and cover a mud puddle to keep Jackson’s feet from getting wet? This penalty gave the Falcons first-and-goal, and they quickly scored a touchdown. As much as the defense was garbage last night, it’s hard to criticize them too much when they’re not even allowed to tackle offensive players. Football has become a joke.
The Emmett Smith Award (Most Hated Opponent): Matt Ryan
From the time he came into the league, I’ve thought the Falcons quarterback was overrated. He was given the silly nickname “Matty Ice” before he’d ever won a playoff game. Also, he’s a ginger. But I’d appreciate it if the Niners would not invalidate my anti-Ryan position by giving up huge games to the guy. Ryan completed 37 of 48 passes last night and looked pretty much unstoppable in the second half, almost leading an improbable comeback. Until…
The Gary Plummer Award (For the Play that Shifted the Momentum): NaVorro Bowman
Shit was about to get seriously dire. The Niners had allowed the Falcons to rally from a 10-point deficit, and after Bowman whiffed on an onside kick, Atlanta had the ball inside the Niners 20-yard line with a chance to at worst tie the game with a field goal—and the way Ryan was throwing the ball, it looked like they were going to score a touchdown to take the lead. A Niners loss in this game would have been devastating, as it would have most likely made next week’s road game at Arizona a win-or-go-home de facto playoff game—against a Cardinals team that just beat the Seahawks in Seattle. As Atlanta got closer and closer to the goal line, I started to mentally compose my eulogy for this season.
Then, with just over a minute on the clock, on 2nd-and-1, Ryan threw a quick slant to Harry Douglas. Tramaine Brock, who’d had his worst game as a starter up to that point, jumped the route and batted the ball up in the air. Bowman caught the tipped pass and looked up to see 89-yards of green grass ahead of him. Pandaemonium.
With that Pick-Six, Bowman salted away a 34-24 victory, clinched a playoff spot, atoned for his failure to recover the onside kick, cemented his status as team MVP, and made himself a legend in the final home game the Niners will play in the city of San Francisco.
I need a cigarette.
Overall Rating For This Game (On a scale of Zero to Twelve Anchors, in honor of San Francisco’s favorite beverage): 6 Anchors
That was a bullshit effort by the Niners, a 2- or 3-Anchor game at best, even if they hold on to win at the end—until the Bowman interception, which was so sublime that it instantly became a defining moment for the season.
I could go through all sorts of playoff permutations now, but there’ll be time for that next week. Right now, I’m just gonna enjoy this.