With the game over and a trip to the Super Bowl secured, 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis stood among celebrating teammates and reflected on Sunday’s comeback victory over the Falcons in Atlanta.
“We continued to fight, even in the face of adversity,” he told a Fox TV reporter.
Indeed, it was an uphill battle all game long for the 49ers, who climbed back from a 17-0 deficit in the NFC Championship Game to beat the Falcons 28-24.
The San Francisco defense, which had been torched early by Matt Ryan and his dangerous corps of receivers – Julio Jones, Roddy White and Tony Gonzalez – regrouped in the second half to hold the Falcons scoreless over the final two periods, including a fourth-down stand deep in Niners territory with 1:13 remaining that secured the win.
The victory sends San Francisco to its sixth Super Bowl and its first since January of 1995. The 49ers are 5-0 in Super Bowls and will face the winner of Sunday’s AFC Championship Game between Baltimore and New England.
After an overtime loss to the Giants in the NFC title game a year ago, head coach Jim Harbaugh has his team in the Super Bowl in just his second season.
It was the third-largest biggest comeback victory by a road team in the playoffs, according to Elias, and is just the second time in eight tries a road team has won a conference championship game indoors.
The Falcons opened the game hot, jumping out to a 17-0 lead midway through the second quarter, on two Ryan TD passes to Jones of 46 and 20 yards and a 35-yard Matt Bryant field goal.
Then, the 49ers settled down.
San Francisco put together two long scoring drives, methodically running the ball and picking up big chunks of yardage in the passing game.
First, rookie LaMichael James scored the first touchdown of his NFL career on a 15-yard dash to cap an 11-play, 80-yard drive that took 6:46. Then, Vernon Davis caught a 4-yard scoring pass to end a seven-play, 82-yard drive that chewed up 4:29. Suddenly, the 49ers were back in the game, down 17-14.
The Falcons were able to rebound and go back up a halftime, 24-14, when Gonzalez scored on a 10-yard TD pass from Ryan. But, that would b the last time the Falcons would score.
The Niners shut them down over the next two quarters, while quarterback Colin Kaepernick was leading two touchdown drives, both ending on Frank Gore runs of 5 and 9 yards.
The Falcons had one last chance for the win, driving to the San Francisco 10-yard line with under two minutes to go, but linebacker Ahmad Brooks knocked down one Ryan Pass on third down and NaVorro Bowman broke up a fourth-down pass to White on fourth down. Though San Francisco was stopped on downs and had to punt the ball away, Atlanta got the ball with time for just one play, and time ran out after Jones was tackled for a 24-yard gain.
Though the Falcons held Kaepernick in check on the ground – after he ran for a record 181 yards last week in a win over the Packers – the San Francisco offense was effective running Gore and James on the read-option. The Niners ran for 139 yards, while Kaepernick hit 16-of-21 throws for a TD, 233 yards and no interceptions.
The Niners now have two weeks before the Super Bowl, which will be played in New Orleans on Feb. 3.