SANTA CLARA — Jim Harbaugh got doused with a celebratory shower after his final game coaching the San Francisco 49ers, then said his goodbyes with handshakes and hugs all around.
Colin Kaepernick confidently declared he's still the quarterback capable of leading this team back to the Super Bowl. Frank Gore cried, contemplating what might have been his last game in a Niners uniform.
In a bizarre finish to a most bizarre season, San Francisco beat the Arizona Cardinals 20-17 on Sunday and avoided ending on a losing note and with a losing record in a year that began with Super Bowl aspirations.
“I'm forever proud to have been a part of this,” Harbaugh said. “It's been a tremendous four years, it's been a pleasure to work and serve for this organization.”
Kaepernick threw a go-ahead 3-yard touchdown pass to Bruce Miller late in the third quarter and Frank Gore capped another 1,000-yard season with 144 yards on 25 carries.
Anquan Boldin caught a 76-yard TD pass and went over 1,000 yards receiving. Gore reached 1,000 yards rushing for the eighth time in 10 NFL seasons with the 49ers (8-8). The franchise's all-time rushing leader hopes to return to the only team he has known and the team has publicly expressed a mutual interest.
Harbaugh and the 49ers reached a mutual agreement to part ways, but he wouldn't say what is next.
“It's bittersweet,” Kaepernick said. “Coach Harbaugh's the coach that drafted me, he's the coach that chose to start me, he's the coach that stood behind me through everything.”
Kaepernick said “most definitely” he can lead the Niners to the Super Bowl, even under a new regime.
Harbaugh departs with one season remaining on the $25 million, five-year contract he signed in January 2011. He led the 49ers (8-8) to three NFC title games and one loss in the Super Bowl in his four seasons.
Asked whether it was his choice to move on, Harbaugh said, “You work at the pleasure of the organization, that's what we all do.”
Harbaugh sprinted off the Levi's Stadium field for the final time, cradling the game ball.
Gore, the franchise's all-time rushing leader, hopes to return to the only team he has known and the team has publicly expressed a mutual interest.
Harbaugh spoke briefly on the field to CEO Jed York before the game amid unconfirmed reports the coach is bound for alma mater Michigan. Harbaugh said “announcements” will be made.
San Francisco missed the playoffs following three straight trips to the NFC championship game and a runner-up Super Bowl finish after the 2012 season. The 49ers, plagued by injuries to key players all season, snapped a four-game losing streak, their first under Harbaugh.
The Cardinals (11-5) missed the franchise's first 12-win season.
“This whole season's over,” coach Bruce Arians said. “It's a whole new one now. I told them right now, I don't want anybody moping on the plane. It's 0-0, and we're determined.”
Ryan Lindley threw touchdown passes of 20 and 41 yards to Michael Floyd in the first half, but couldn't deliver late.
Floyd finished with eight catches for 153 yards. Arians went with Lindley under center after he originally planned to start rookie Logan Thomas before changing his mind.
Lindley was intercepted three times.
The No. 5 seed Cardinals missed the division title, too, as defending Super Bowl champion Seattle beat St. Louis 20-6 to win the NFC West and the overall top seed. The Cardinals play at Carolina next weekend, and Arians has been optimistic quarterback Drew Stanton will be back next week from a sprained right knee that got infected.
Lindley threw his first career touchdown pass on his 229th attempt with a 20-yard completion to Floyd on Arizona's opening drive.
Boldin caught a 9-yard touchdown pass that was negated by rookie center Marcus Martin's chop block penalty. Alfonso Smith also had his short scoring run negated when Harbaugh called timeout. Then came Miller's TD catch.
Franchise rushing leader Gore provided a bright spot at $1.3 billion Levi's Stadium, where San Francisco finished 4-4. Gore, with his family in attendance and wearing his No. 21 jersey, became the 11th player in NFL history with eight 1,000-yard seasons and 20th player to reach 11,000 yards rushing.
“It's a blessing,” Gore said, noting he has been emotional about his future. “I just wanted to finish it right. … I cried today because when I first got here I was 21, 10 years … Knowing this could be my last game here, it's tough because this is all I knew.”
NOTES: Boldin's 76-yard TD catch was the second-longest TD catch of his career. Boldin became the fourth player in 49ers franchise history with multiple 1,000-yard receiving seasons, joining Jerry Rice (12), Terrell Owens (5) and John Taylor (2).