12/19/2013 02:37 PM
The San Francisco 49ers hope to close out Candlestick Park with a celebration of their return to the playoffs.
If they haven't already clinched a postseason berth before this game, the 49ers could take care of it on their own Monday night when they meet the Atlanta Falcons in the final regular-season game at the stadium the team has called home since 1971.
"There will be tremendous memories from everybody that's ever played there," coach Jim Harbaugh said. "That's why it's important for us not to screw it up and make sure we get this win this (Monday)."
San Francisco (10-4) will have a playoff spot wrapped up well before kickoff if Arizona loses at Seattle on Sunday. That result would give the 49ers a wild-card spot and the NFC West to the Seahawks. However, if the Cardinals snap Seattle's 14-game home winning streak, San Francisco would need a win to clinch a playoff berth and still have a shot at the West title.
While it seems unlikely the Niners will win the division and host a playoff game, this could be the final game at Candlestick, where they have an 18-4-1 regular-season record since the start of 2011.
The 49ers have won four consecutive games overall, thanks largely to an improved offense. Colin Kaepernick has a 104.7 passer rating with seven touchdown passes and one turnover in that span after committing 12 through the first 10 games. Frank Gore has rushed for 196 yards over the past two weeks, including big runs to seal wins over Seattle and Tampa Bay.
Gore recorded his seventh 1,000-yard season in last Sunday's 33-14 victory over the Buccaneers.
"Frank's an amazing running back. I feel like he's the most underrated running back in the NFL. He does everything for our offense," Kaepernick said. "He runs the ball. If we ask him to block, he does it. If we ask him to catch a pass, he does it. What he means to this team and what he contributes really can't be quantified."
Facing the Falcons, the combination of Gore and Kaepernick could do some damage. The 49ers rank fifth in the NFL with 137.1 rushing yards per game and are tied for second with 16 touchdowns on the ground. Atlanta's run defense ranks among the bottom five in the league with 131.4 yards allowed per game and 4.6 per carry.
These teams are meeting for the first time since the NFC championship game in Atlanta. The Falcons lost 28-24, and things continued to go wrong this season.
Atlanta (4-10) will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2009.
"That was then, this is now. It's the next game," Harbaugh said of the rematch aspect. "We desperately want to win. I'm sure they feel the same way. It certainly has been evidenced this whole season that everybody's fighting tooth and nail for wins. No team, no exception. The competition has been the most heated."
The Falcons haven't just given up, winning two of their last three games. The defense has forced 11 turnovers in that span after causing eight through the first 11 games.
Atlanta forced seven last Sunday and held of Washington 27-26.
"The first (point of emphasis) is winning the turnover battle and the second one is winning the explosive battle," coach Mike Smith said. "You put those two things together, and it's the toxic differential that you look at. More times than not, the teams that are in the top 12, most of those teams are in the playoffs."
Allowing big plays remains a problem. Atlanta, outgained 476-243 last week, has given up 59 plays of 20 yards or more to rank in the bottom half of the league. The 49ers have allowed 36, second-fewest in the NFL.
San Francisco had dominated Atlanta at Candlestick, going 17-2 between 1983 and 2001 when the teams met annually as members of the NFC West. Since the Falcons changed divisions, they've won all four meetings with two coming in San Francisco.