“Onward! Onward!,” Jim Harbaugh said during his day-after-game news conference Tuesday. “We’re moving onward to the Cardinals.”
But even the ultra-focused 49ers coach couldn’t help but reflect – over and over – on the play Monday night that sealed a playoff spot for his team.
“I’ll remember that until the day I die,” Harbaugh said of NaVorro Bowman’s 89-yard interception return for a touchdown with 71 seconds left that gave San Francisco a dramatic 34-24 win over Atlanta in the final regular-season game at Candlestick Park. “I got it at (age) 50. I couldn’t have had a better birthday present. ... I’m shooting for 100, so I got it right at the halfway point. Happier than a pig in slop.”
Harbaugh noted Bowman wasn’t initially in coverage on the play. Instead, he was part of an all-out blitz, and his job was to occupy the center so free safety Eric Reid would have a free run at Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan.
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But even though he was several yards from Atlanta wide receiver Harry Douglas, Ryan’s intended target, when the critical play began, Bowman had the instinct and athleticism to get into position to collect the ball after cornerback Tramaine Brock tipped it in the air.
Harbaugh likened the play to the one Justin Smith made at the end of a 2011 game at Philadelphia. Like Bowman, Smith was a pass rusher when the play began but caught up to a wide receiver 18 yards downfield and poked the ball free to preserve a 49ers victory.
“I don’t know the percentage of athletes that can do that, that would do that – have that kind of instincts and ability, but NaVorro Bowman does and Justin Smith did a couple of years ago,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t know how many plays like that a coach has in his career, probably so few that you’re going to remember them in your entire coaching career. But that was one of those memorable plays.”
Bowman is not usually on any lists for Defensive Player of the Year, but Harbaugh has said the inside linebacker should be. He ranks sixth in the league with 135 tackles, and his game-sealing return on national television is bound to be replayed throughout the holidays.
“It’s sure not going to hurt him,” Harbaugh said.
Now Harbaugh’s task is setting aside the emotion from Monday’s game, perhaps the last at Candlestick, and zeroing in on Arizona.
The 49ers secured a playoff spot by beating the Falcons. The Cardinals need to beat the 49ers on Sunday – along with a loss by the Saints – to get into the postseason.
Harbaugh said he would let the players enjoy Christmas morning with their families but they were due back in the team facility by 2 p.m. for film study. The first practice of the week will be Thursday.
The 49ers likely will need a win to hang onto the No. 5 seed in the NFC. And with some holiday magic, they still could land a division title or even the No. 1 seed in the NFC, which would mean at least one final game at Candlestick.
Harbaugh said he would not monitor the other games with playoff implications that kick off in the 1 p.m. hour this Sunday. He said the focus has to be on beating the Cardinals.
“There’s too much at stake, too big of a game,” he said. “Somebody from the media asked me that last week – will we approach Monday night’s game differently? I said, no, at that time. Too many things can happen and there’s too much at stake.”