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Time is right for 49ers, who beat Falcons to clinch Super Bowl bid

San Francisco, not quite ready to take the final step a year earlier, holds off Atlanta, 28-24, in NFC title game. It is 49ers' first Super Bowl berth in 18 years.

January 20, 2013|By Sam Farmer

ATLANTA — Moments after scoring his second touchdown in Sunday's NFC championship game, Frank Gore stood in the back of the end zone, turned to face the deflated Georgia Dome crowd and began the first few steps of the "Dirty Bird," the celebration dance popularized by the hometown Falcons in the late 1990s.

Then, in a move he'd practiced many times, Gore stopped and gave the crowd a dismissive wave, as if to say, "Never mind."

"I thought about that all week," Gore said after San Francisco's 28-24 victory, one that sends the 49ers to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. "I told myself, if I get a touchdown, I'm going to start it off and try to mess it up, then tell Falcons fans, 'Well, forget it. It's our time.'"

And, in fact, it is the 49ers' time. The team that came within one win of the NFL's biggest stage last season is heading to New Orleans, where it will face Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII.

Once Super Bowl regulars who were 5-0 in those appearances, the 49ers haven't tasted that type of success for a long time. From 2003-2010, they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Justin Smith was asked after the game if there was a time he thought he might never get this far.

"Absolutely . . ." he said, catching himself. "But we've got one game left."

Just as they don't plan to ease off the accelerator now, the 49ers kept it to the floor in the game. They had to, after they fell behind in the first half, 17-0, as the volume in the dome reached ear-splitting.

While Atlanta's Matt Ryan was untouched and threw pass after flawless pass in the opening quarter, the 49ers finished the period with no first downs and minus-two yards of offense.

In the end, San Francisco's 17-point comeback would be the biggest in the history of the NFC championship game, eclipsing Atlanta's 13-point rebound against Minnesota in 1998.

Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco's second-year quarterback who was making only his ninth career start, showed no signs of nerves as he confidently switched out of plays at the line of scrimmage, unfazed by the deafening din. He didn't run nearly as much as he did against Green Bay a week earlier, when he rushed for a record 181 yards, but he blew holes in Atlanta's defense with his laser-beam passes.

Put simply by Kaepernick: "Going out on the field frantic isn't going to help you score points. You have to stay calm. You have to try and lead your team."

Kaepernick completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown — a four-yarder to Vernon Davis — and added two runs for 21 yards.

"He's special," said Jed York, the 49ers' chief executive. "I remember watching film of him when [Coach Jim Harbaugh] and [General Manager Trent Baalke] were looking at him. They liked Colin over anybody in the draft last year. You just watch how he reacts in big games, and he steps up. Today, you felt like he could get you back into it.

"There was a while there I didn't think either team was going to get stopped."

The game was a showcase performance for Ryan too. He threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns and was sacked only once. He had a couple of mistakes — an interception and a fumble in the second half — but had his team in position to win at the end. He apparently suffered a left shoulder injury late in the game and was being evaluated by Falcons trainers afterward.

Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said the game was probably his last. Retirement is right around the corner for the 13-time Pro Bowl player, with his next stop being the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

"That's probably going to be the last time I wear that uniform, or football pads and cleats," said Gonzalez, who caught a 10-yard touchdown pass Sunday, followed by his signature dunk over the crossbar.

"I didn't want to take them off, to tell you the truth. All good things come to an end."

The key sequence in Sunday's game — four downs from the San Francisco 16 — came when the Falcons were trailing by four, starting with 2 minutes 23 seconds to play.

Jacquizz Rodgers ran for a yard on first down. Ryan hit Jason Snelling for five yards on second. Then, on third and fourth down from the 10, consecutive passes intended for Roddy White fell incomplete, the first one batted away by Ahmad Brooks.

"We rose up there at the end," said Harbaugh, perhaps putting a tongue-in-cheek spin on the "Rise Up" mantra of the Falcons. "It was a great finish for our defense, an exclamation point on the game."

That defense held the Falcons scoreless in the second half. After the final stand, San Francisco was able to run all but six seconds off the clock, effectively ending the game.

"It was tough for everybody," Atlanta Coach Mike Smith said of the oh-so-close finish. "Tough for our guys when there is finality with our season. We will bounce back. We just don't feel real good right now."

The 49ers certainly understand that feeling. They were turned back at the doorstep of the Super Bowl a year ago when they lost in overtime to the New York Giants at Candlestick Park. Getting his team that far earned Harbaugh coach-of-the-year honors, seeing as the 49ers were 6-10 the season before he was hired.

But in a now-it-can-be-told moment, York said Sunday that the 49ers simply weren't ready to reach the NFL mountaintop last season.

"We had a young team, we got together quickly after the lockout [in the summer of 2011], it wasn't like they spent a lot of time together," York said. "They won. They probably didn't deserve to be 13-3, didn't deserve to host an NFC championship game just because of the youth and inexperience. And it just kind of happened so quick.

"This year, I think we were just ready. We beat the Packers last week, and we were just ready to come play today."

sam.farmer@latimes.com

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