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PICK-6: San Francisco Closes Candlestick with Playoff Clinch
NaVorro Bowman clinches the game and a playoff spot for the 49ers (ESPN.com)

PICK-6: San Francisco Closes Candlestick with Playoff Clinch

Atlanta Falcons cause suspense as Bowman, Willis and Niners defense hold

Eleven months ago, NaVorro Bowman sealed the deal for the San Francisco 49ers‘ sixth trip to the Superbowl when he defended a Matt Ryan red zone pass to Roddy White with 1:13 remaining. No one expected Bowman to break the Falcons again on Monday night. After all, the Niners were closing Candlestick Park on Monday Night Football in front of 49ers and (baseball) Giants legends at a stacked house. The Atlanta Falcons, packed with pride, came to play backed by one of the coldest arms in the NFL.

Matty Ice used quick and crisp drop back passes and a heavy dose of Roddy White to make it a game until the end before Bowman again showed his face. From the Niners 10-yard-line, Ryan hit Harry Douglas to the left flat. Defended by Tramaine Brock, the ball came loose and fell into the hands of Bowman as he headed the other way 89 yards for the game-clinching touchdown. Niners win 34-24. Their run continues with more on the line against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday. Here are the picked 6.

1. The 49ers take their share of hits being hitters. At least the officials remain consistent. Since the new Niners began to represent defensively, the flags have flown. In the three years of Jim Harbaugh, yellow is close to expected whenever an opposing offender is stretched by Donte Whitner, Ahmad Brooks, Patrick Willis, Bowman and the others. At times, the effect of the hit ripples towards destructive, as did the Ahmad Brooks 4th quarter sack on Drew Brees earlier in the season. It was a game winner except for the flag thrown by the back judge. Critics heavily debated that hit, as we will Whitner’s hit on Steven Jackson. Whitner’s hit at the 9-yard-line pushed the Falcons closer to the goal. Jackson scored on the next play. Do not expect the 49ers defensive unit to change their personality any time soon. The flags will fly, too. Niners and their fans hope future flags will not cost a game.

2. The Niners’ defense may be heading into the 2013 postseason stronger than 2012. Though the Niners were one play from winning Superbowl XLVII, their defense was not peaking. Injuries plagued the group and they allowed nearly 30 points a game. This group is healthier and better overall versus the pass compared to last year. They are currently ranked 5th among all NFL defenses and 3rd amongst all current playoff teams. From the front-7 to the secondary, the Niners’ defense can go toe-to-toe with any offense in The League. Only the Seattle Seahawks and Carolina Panthers are comparable, defensively. Look for this group of perennial Pro Bowlers to make the right play at the right time to push this storied franchise over the hump, again.

3. Despite the loss of starting fullback Bruce Miller, the 49ers running game is hitting all cylinders. San Francisco has rushed for more than 160 yards in three consecutive games including the 199 yards Monday night. Frank Gore and Kendall Hunter’s one-two punch is escalating with Hunter gaining strength after last year’s season ending Achilles injury in Week 12 versus the New Orleans Saints. With the return of Michael Crabtree, Colin Kaepernick has also seen more opportunities. He reached the 500-yard mark on Monday night adding his 4th rushing touchdown. He ranks in the top-5 in both categories amongst quarterbacks in the NFL.

4. The growing pains continue for Colin Kaepernick. Nevertheless, he wins games and continues to makes plays with his skill and athleticism. The Nevada-Reno cannon’s sample size (22 games) inspires high expectations from inside and outside of 49ers headquarters. Opponents determined Kaepernick is not an effective progression quarterback; forcing him to address his secondary options. His ability to make the read determines game outcomes. Nothing will change that. On the other hand, Jim Harbaugh and Greg Roman are capable play callers putting Niners receivers in proper positions. The 49ers are no longer short on weapons. They can create matchup problems one way or another. When all else fails, Kaepernick will use his ability to improvise outside of the pocket, though teams apply a spy to him every outing.

5. The 49ers are the scariest playoff-ready team in the NFL. What makes the 49ers different than the Seahawks and Panthers; or, the Saints? The Niners can produce big plays from every phase of their game (offense, defense and special teams). They have no extraordinary weaknesses unlike the other teams. The team is also battle-tested. The key components from last year’s Superbowl loss are in tact. Most of the team from the NFC Championship loss to the New York Giants two years ago is also still on the squad. Anything less than, at least, a trip to New Jersey would be shocking.

6. It has been an interesting story to watch. An organization once a shell of themselves; out of the playoffs for a decade; the 49ers have worked their way up an incline. This will be the year the Niners claim their 6th Superbowl. Obviously, the injury bug must stay away for the next five games. And sure, they knocked on the door last year. A few things are different this year. The Niners have fewer injuries compared to the previous year. They are not reeling on defense. The full receiver core and running backs are all available. This team is peaking at the right time. They were actually declining last year, but were so good; they masked their vulnerabilities until they reached the Superbowl. It will not happen this year. San Francisco is ready. The way they closed Candlestick Monday night is the first link of the chain in their push to the post-season.


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