SAN FRANCISCO — Two teams separated by just a few plays and all of four points for a berth to the Super Bowl last February now find themselves on opposite ends of the spectrum and standings.
The San Francisco 49ers (10-4) are riding a four-game winning streak and surging down the stretch with a playoff berth practically in hand. The Atlanta Falcons (4-10), meanwhile, sit in last place in the NFC South and soon will be headed into a longer offseason than they imagined less than a year after a loss to San Francisco on their home field.
“They’re a different team, we’re a different team,” San Francisco left tackle Joe Staley said. “New season.”
Now, the NFC champion Niners are more determined than ever to defend their home turf in the final game at Candlestick Park. Next season, San Francisco moves into new Levi’s Stadium at team headquarters in Santa Clara.
“It’s the last game in Candlestick,” coach Jim Harbaugh said. “We don’t want to be the guys who screw up the last game in Candlestick. These players will come back 20-25 years from now and they want to have a good memory of winning at Candlestick.”
Harbaugh’s players are treating it like any other important game on the schedule, not getting caught up in the fanfare and memories of the iconic stadium.
“For us, we want to leave Candlestick with a win,” quarterback Colin Kaepernick said. “That’s what we’re worried about.”
The way things have gone for Atlanta, the Falcons know how quickly things can turn.
“The dynamics of the team change each and every year,” coach Mike Smith said. “We’ve been a relevant team for the last five years. Unfortunately, we have not played up to our expectations. We are extremely disappointed in the way we’ve played in all three phases and the way we’ve coached.”
Here are five things to watch for Sunday:
GONZALEZ’S LAST BAY AREA HURRAH: Former Cal star Tony Gonzalez will make his last Bay Area trip before retirement after the season. Gonzalez just reached 15,000 yards receiving.
He will leave 20 tickets for family and friends, many making the trip from Southern California.
“I don’t know if there’s any added emotions,” Gonzalez said. “I’m taking everything with urgency, looking back going, ‘This is it, I’ll never have this opportunity again.’ You can’t take it for granted, because you don’t know when it can be over. It’s one of my last games.”
THE ‘STICK SAYS SO LONG: The 49ers have played at Candlestick since 1971, so this farewell season has been bittersweet for many of the players who produced their greatest moments there.
From Hall of Famers Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Steve Young, to Dwight Clark and the famous “Catch” that made him a worldwide name, to the current players trying to do their part in the stadium’s legacy, this game means a little bit more.
“The guys who did great things before us, like Jerry Rice, Joe Montana and Steve Young, I’m glad I had the opportunity to play on the same field,” running back Frank Gore said.
DAWSON ON A ROLL: Phil Dawson has been on such a roll it affects Harbaugh’s play-calling knowing he has a spot-on kicker.
Dawson has converted a franchise-record 24 straight field-goal tries, and adjusted well to the wind and elements at Candlestick.
“Real football player in every sense of the word, which that always doesn’t get affixed to kickers and punters, but Phil is that kind of a teammate,” Harbaugh said. “It’s about accomplishing the mission and the goal of the team and him doing his job within that.”
Dawson realizes one missed kick can change a season, so he’s not thinking too far ahead — like about his chance to stay with the 49ers after his one-year deal is done.
“I’d love to be back,” he said. “We’ve got some exciting football down the chute that’s got my focus.”
STOPPING DAVIS: Vernon Davis needs one touchdown catch to match his career high of 13 set during the 2009 season.
The Falcons will have to try to stop the speedy, athletic tight end from making a touchdown reception for a sixth straight game. He became the first tight end in NFL history with more than one 12-touchdown season.
“He makes plays, that’s the biggest thing to say about Vernon,” Kaepernick said.
BLOCKING FOR GORE: With versatile fullback Bruce Miller lost for the season to a shoulder blade injury, the 49ers are calling on Anthony Dixon to take on a greater role in run-blocking for Gore as well as others.
Gore has credited Miller for much of his success given the holes created.
“It stinks that Bruce is out,” Staley said. “We’ve had guys all season that have stepped up. Whoever steps in that position is going to have big shoes to fill.”
Harbaugh is eager to see how Dixon does with greater responsibility.
“Anthony Dixon will step up and do a great job as he has been doing in that backup fullback role,” Harbaugh said. “Very confident in AD and how he’ll do.”