ATLANTA — The San Francisco 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years. All it took was the biggest comeback win in NFC Championship Game history.
Frank Gore scored two touchdowns, helping the 49ers overcome an early 17-0 deficit and beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
The 49ers now await the winner of the Baltimore Ravens-New England Patriots game that will determine their opponent in Super Bowl XLVII. A victory in New Orleans on Feb. 3 would allow San Francisco to match the Pittsburgh Steelers as the only six-time Super Bowl champions.
The 49ers trailed the entire game until Gore’s 9-yard touchdown run gave San Francisco its first lead with 8:23 to play.
The Falcons drove to the San Francisco 10-yard line on their ensuing drive, but Ryan’s pass over the middle to Roddy White on fourth down with 1:13 to play was broken up by NaVorro Bowman.
Atlanta was able to force a San Francisco punt, but the Falcons got the ball back with only 10 seconds to play and were unable get the ball near the end zone.
With the Falcons focusing on quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Gore emerged as the focal point of the 49ers’ ground game. The veteran running back finished with 90 yards and two touchdowns on 21 carries. Kaepernick rushed just twice for 21 yards, but he completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
“Man, it feels surreal,” San Francisco linebacker Patrick Willis said. “I’m looking around and all my teammates are just enjoying it. It’s an unbelievable feeling. I’m really grateful for this time right now. It really humbles me to be in the situation I am today. Man, we’re going to the Super Bowl.”
Just as in last week’s win over the Seattle Seahawks, the Falcons jumped out quickly. Ryan threw touchdown passes of 46 and 20 yards to Julio Jones on either side of Matt Bryant making a 35-yard field goal. Atlanta led 17-0 early in the second quarter.
Ryan completed 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. Jones had seven catches for 135 yards and two scores before the break.
The Falcons had 182 yards in the first quarter. The 49ers had minus-2.
But just like last week, the Falcons couldn’t hold the lead. And this time it cost them a trip to the Super Bowl.
The 49ers scored twice in the second quarter to cut the deficit to 17-14. LaMichael James scored on a 15-yard run, and Kaepernick tossed a 4-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis to narrow the gap.
Davis had a big game, making five catches for 106 yards and leaving the Atlanta defense scrambling.
“Covering the tight end was an issue,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “They made a number of explosive plays with the tight end. When you go into a game and have a game plan in place, and you put resources in one area, one of our main goals was to stop the quarterback running the football. We did not cover the tight end as well as we needed to. Those were the plays that I felt like they made, and it wasn’t necessarily the wide receivers or running back. It was the tight end.”
Atlanta extended its lead right before the half, with Ryan capping a seven-play, 80-yard drive with 10-yard completion to Tony Gonzalez to extend the lead to 24-14. The tight end had eight catches for 78 yards a touchdown in what could be the last game of his illustrious career.
San Francisco regrouped at halftime.
“It’s all about believing in who’s on your team,” 49ers linebacker Aldon Smith said of his team’s ability to rally. “If we didn’t do that, we could have pushed the panic button, but we believe in each other and know what we’re capable of. In the first half, we were playing bad. We weren’t on the same page, but we got ourselves together at halftime, came out and put together a good second half.”
The 49ers scored on their opening possession of the second half, marching 82 yards on seven plays with Gore going in from the 5-yard line to trim the Falcons’ lead to 24-21.
Ryan turned the ball over twice in the third quarter, once on Chris Culliver’s interception and the other on a mishandled snap. However, the 49ers failed to capitalize on either turnover.
Ryan wound up completing 30 of 42 passes for 396 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.
The 49ers looked poised to take their first lead of the game early in the fourth quarter, but cornerback Dunta Robinson stripped Michael Crabtree at the goal line and Stephen Nicholas recovered.
San Francisco moved in front on its next possession. Ted Ginn’s 20-yard punt return set up the 49ers at the Atlanta 38-yard line, and six plays later, Gore’s 9-yard run over right end provided the winning points.
The Falcons were outscored 42-10 in the second half in their two playoff games, leaving them to head into the offseason wondering what could have been.
“It’s tough for everybody,” Mike Smith said. “Tough for our guys when there is finality with our season. We will bounce back. We just don’t feel real good right now.”
NOTES: The Falcons owned the previous largest comeback in an NFC Championship Game, when they rallied from 13 down to beat the Minnesota Vikings in 1999. … This was the first time the Falcons had hosted an NFC Championship Game. … San Francisco’s Jim Harbaugh is the eighth coach in NFL history to reach the conference or league championship game in each of first two seasons. … Falcons running back Michael Turner injured his ankle in the third quarter. He wound up with eight carries for 30 yards. … San Francisco’s David Akers missed his 14th field goal of the season in the third quarter, the most of any kicker in the NFL this season. His 38-yard attempt hit the left upright. … The Falcons, who set a record for fewest penalties in the regular season, committed just two infractions for 30 yards against the 49ers. … Ryan injured his non-throwing shoulder in the fourth quarter and looked to be in pain while attempting a pass on the game’s final play. … The 49ers are 5-0 in Super Bowls, the only team that has played in the game more than once and still has a perfect record. The Steelers are 6-2. The Cowboys (5-3) are tied with San Francisco for second in Super Bowl victories.