Tim Dwight provided a glimmer of hope for the Atlanta Falcons as they completed their dismal run as NFC champions.
Dwight caught seven passes for 162 yards, including two touchdowns, and returned a punt 70 yards for another score as the Falcons closed the NFL's regular season tonight with a 34-29 victory over the San Francisco 49ers.
The 49ers (4-12) fell behind 31-7 but showed a bit of pride in their worst season since 1979, scoring three second-half touchdowns to make it close. The Falcons recovered an onside kick with 2 minutes 45 seconds remaining but had to bat down a desperation pass in the end zone to preserve the victory.
Chris Chandler took advantage of the league's worst-rated pass defense to throw for 306 yards and three touchdowns, helping Atlanta (5-11) snap a 10-game losing streak on Monday night.
Jerry Rice, in what may have been his final game with the 49ers, added another highlight to his brilliant career with a 62-yard reception, setting up a San Francisco touchdown and drawing applause from Falcons defensive back Ray Buchanan. Rice finished with six receptions for 143 yards.
Atlanta won its final two games--the team's only winning streak of the season--but still equaled the 1990 Denver Broncos for the worst record in a post-Super Bowl year. Both teams were coached by Dan Reeves.
San Francisco, a perennial powerhouse gone shockingly bad since the loss of quarterback Steve Young, dropped 11 of its last 12 for the team's worst finish since a 2-14 mark in 1979.
One consolation for San Francisco: the No. 3 pick in the draft. The Falcons didn't have to worry about draft ramifications, having traded their top pick in 2000 to Baltimore for a second-rounder in 1999.
Atlanta wound up with a reserve tight end, Reggie Kelly, who had only eight catches for 146 yards this season. The Ravens, meanwhile, will gladly take a prime No. 5 choice in the upcoming draft.
Dwight, a speedy, 5-foot-8 receiver, broke open the game in the final minute of the first half with his dazzling skills as a returner.
Atlanta was leading 10-7 when Dwight took a punt at his 30, broke free in front of the San Francisco bench, cut back toward the middle of the field and outraced Randy Krik without being touched, reaching the end zone with just 12 seconds remaining.
The Falcons increased the lead to 24-7 on their first possession of the second half, as Terance Mathis hauled in the 50th touchdown reception of his career on a 19-yard pass from Chandler. Mathis also assured his second straight 1,000-yard season with a nine-yard catch in the fourth quarter.