On Sunday, the San Francisco 49ers (11-4-1) punched their ticket to Super Bowl XLVII to play against either the New England Patriots (12-4) or the Baltimore Ravens (10-6). Colin Kaepernick and company stormed back to defeat the Atlanta Falcons (13-3) in a thrilling NFC title game.
Despite playing at the Georgia Dome, the No. 1 seed Falcons entered the National Football Conference championship game as home underdogs on a (-2.5) betting spread set by Las Vegas oddsmakers. San Francisco, ranked as the NFC's No. 2 seed, charged back to take its first lead in the middle of the fourth quarter after falling behind 17-0 in the first half.
The Niners' elite defense shut out the Falcons offense in the second half to reach football's biggest stage. The 47th Super Bowl will take place on Feb. 3 at the Superdome in New Orleans.
Falcons defensive coordinator and ex-Niners coach Mike Nolan had early success against his old team, shutting the high-powered Colin Kaepernick to zero first downs in only two first quarter possessions. As the game wore on, some fans began to wonder whether Jim Harbaugh should put Alex Smith back on the field after the 49ers coach benched the veteran quarterback midway through the season.
On the offensive side, ATL's "dirty birds" racked up 182 yards in the initial quarter against one of the NFL's best defenses. On his first drive, Matt Ryan threw a 46-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Julio Jones, who got the best of 49ers cornerback Tarrell Brown.
Jones dominated San Francisco in the first quarter, catching five catches for 100 yards and helped the Falcons take a 10-0 lead. Matt Bryant kicked a 35-yard field goal with 3:25 left in the first quarter.
On the following kickoff, 49ers running back LaMichael James almost turned the ball over when it appeared that he fumbled on the 25-yard line. However, referees ruled that he had been down on contact. A few plays later, Julio Jones leaped over Tarrell Brown to make an incredible 20-yard catch and score his second touchdown. At the end of the first half, Jones had seven catches for 135 yards while Roddy White had six catches for 91 yards.
Falcons 17, 49ers 0.
The 49ers, who ran a full house pistol-read offense with the mobile Kaepernick at the helm, appeared shell-shocked. The read-option offense features a versatile quarterback, a tight-end, one running back (directly behind the signal caller), and three receivers.
In conference championship games, teams are 57-1 after holding at least a 20-point lead, according to league stats. The second-year quarterback struggled early inside the extremely loud Georgia Dome, and it showed when Kaepernick got a delay of game penalty on third and short in the second quarter. A veteran quarterback would have called a timeout.
After a 27-yard completion to tight-end Vernon Davis, an explosive LaMichael James ran untouched on a sweep to the right for 15 yards to score an easy touchdown. The rookie halfback is the all-time yards leader in Oregon Ducks history.
Falcons 17, 49ers 7.
As the second quarter winded down, the 49ers roared back on a 91-yard drive featuring a 23-yard run by Kaepernick. With 1:55 left in the first half, Davis caught a four yard lobbed pass for a touchdown. One of the NFL's best tight-ends had four catches for 75 yards through the second quarter.
Falcons 17, 49ers 14.
With less than two minutes left, Matt Ryan led the Falcons on a 80-yard drive punctuated by a 10-yard touchdown catch by tight-end Tony Gonzalez. Gonzalez, a future hall-of-famer, is expected by many to head into retirement after this season.
For the Niners, Vernon Davis led the team with four catches for 75 yards and one touchdown heading into the second half. Wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was possibly distracted by a sexual assault investigation initiated this past week, had three catches for only 12 yards.
Atlanta was clearly intent on showcasing their passing attack, as the Falcons threw for 271 yards while rushing for only 26. The Falcons racked up 17 first downs compared to 10 first downs for the 49ers through the second quarter.
San Francisco took an opposite approach with a run-first, physical attack on offense. Kaepernick threw for 99 yards while Frank Gore, James, and Kaepernick combined for 70 yards on the ground.
Halftime: Falcons 24, 49ers 14.
With a sense of urgency, San Francisco ran a no-huddle, piston offense to begin the second half with Frank Gore battering Atlanta's defensive line with smash-mouth running. More importantly, Falcons cornerback Dunta Robinson was injured after surrendering a 20-yard catch to tight-end Delanie Walker.
After receiver Randy Moss caught two lengthy passes for 21 and 17 yards, Gore punched in a five yard touchdown run on the right side and single-handedly silenced the fans at the Georgia Dome. San Francisco climbed to within a field goal.
Falcons 24, 49ers 21.
On the ensuing Falcons possession, Matt Ryan threw an interception after cornerback Chris Culliver dove over Roddy White at the San Francisco 37. It was the first turnover of the game. On the very next play, Kaepernick threw for 25 yards to Vernon Davis.
However, a 38-yard field goal attempt by struggling kicker David Akers hit the left upright to cost the 49ers a much-needed three points. On the next drive, Matt Ryan muffed a shotgun snap on the San Francisco 38 which was recovered by 49ers Pro Bowl linebacker Aldon Smith. The turnover saved a field goal attempt by the Falcons.
On the following drive, the Falcons committed a huge roughing-the-passer penalty on fourth down against Colin Kaepernick, an error that resulted in a 15-yard gain and a first down. However, Crabtree fumbled the football near the goal line which was recovered by Atlanta's Dunta Robinson, who checked back into the game after a first half injury.
After the Falcons punted the ball, Frank Gore ran the ball untouched to the right side and into the endzone for a nine-yard touchdown, his second score of the game. Gore's touchdown gave San Francisco its first lead of the game with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter.
49ers 28, Falcons 24.
On the following Atlanta drive, Matt Ryan led the Falcons on a time-consuming drive that lasts nearly seven minutes. Needing a touchdown, the Falcons saw themselves in four-down territory with less than two minutes remaining.
Had David Akers made that 38-yard field goal, San Francisco would have been up by seven points. On fourth and four at the 10-yard line, linebacker NaVorro Bownman broke up a pass intended for Roddy White giving the 49ers the ball. It was the defense's biggest play of the year. Stunningly, Atlanta did not score in the second half after torching the 49ers in the first two quarters.
After a San Francisco punt, Matt Ryan had one final play with six seconds left with no timeouts. But it was too late.
San Francisco is going to New Orleans to play in Super Bowl XLVII to seek its sixth Lombardi Trophy. The 49ers last reached the Super Bowl in 1994 when the team featured hall of fame players Steve Young and Jerry Rice.
Final: 49ers 28, Falcons 24.