ATLANTA – The football left Matt Ryan's right hand and floated gently toward the left corner of the end zone, a tantalizing testament to the home team's bravado. When Julio Jones rose up to seize it, the catch stood as a perfect metaphor for the way the Atlanta Falcons were grabbing hold of during Sunday's NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome.
As Jones ignored the flailing arms of cornerback Tarell Brown, corralled the ball and gracefully dragged his feet on the last available inches of green turf, the San Francisco 49ers absolutely seemed headed for a hard, inglorious fall.
Following the replay confirmation of Jones' second touchdown catch and Matt Bryant's extra point, the Niners – one play into the second quarter – trailed 17-0 and seemed to have misplaced their "Silver Linings Playbook". San Francisco had been outgained 202-to-minus-2 (yes, negative 2 yards) and had yet to record a first down. With the cacophonous cheers of 70,863 fans swirling through the climate-controlled air, the 49ers couldn't help but confront the distasteful possibility of a second consecutive NFC title game defeat.
"Obviously, it was stressful," San Francisco Pro Bowl defensive tackle Justin Smith said later. "We thought, 'What's going on here?' But we stayed calm. It was, 'Do your job, make plays, keep going.' This group never quits."
A lot of players on a lot of teams talk about plowing through adversity and fighting to the finish. On Sunday, the 49ers shook off their miserable start with deliberate, defiant dexterity, officially validating coach Jim Harbaugh's bold decision to hand over his offense to untested quarterback Colin Kaepernick two months ago and stamping themselves as comeback kids worthy of carrying on the great Joe Montana's legacy.
In what was, in fact, the biggest comeback in NFC championship game history, San Francisco gutted out a 28-24 victory that catapulted the franchise to its sixth Super Bowl – and first in 18 years. Rest assured that when the Niners face the AFC champion Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans on Feb. 3, in a battle of coaching brothers and physical, resilient teams, they won't be likely to flinch if things don't go their way.
Before learning that the Baltimore team coached by his elder sibling, John, had pulled off a 28-13 AFC championship game upset over the New England Patriots, Jim Harbaugh watched his players demonstrate conclusively that they are not your big brother's 49ers.
Last year, with Harbaugh as their rookie mentor, the Niners were the league's surprise team in reaching the NFC championship game against the New York Giants. Coming off a thrilling 36-32 divisional-round victory over the New Orleans Saints, and playing in front of their home fans at Candlestick Park, the 49ers hung around but couldn't finish: San Francisco, which completed only one pass (for three yards) to a wideout, suffered a 20-17 overtime defeat after Kyle Williams fumbled a punt in overtime.
Though it wasn't apparent from their shaky start Sunday, the Harbaugh 2.0 Niners had a collective intensity, and a play-making potency, that their 2011 predecessors lacked.
"It was a great experience for us last year, going to the playoffs and almost making it [to the Super Bowl], but we didn't," said tight end Vernon Davis, who emerged from a prolonged stretch of quiet performances with a big-time effort against the Falcons. "So coming here was like, 'We've got to get it this time. We're here.' This time, there was a little bit more of an edge, and we were more aggressive. It was just that will-to-win attitude."
Jed York, the young CEO whose deft leadership has helped the 49ers return to the lofty level they once attained habitually under the ownership of his uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, agreed with Davis. York, standing in a small dressing area adjacent to the visitors' locker room after Sunday's game and nattily attired in a three-piece suit, became emotional when discussing the team's evolution over the past 12 months.
"I absolutely think it was different this year," York told Y! Sports. "Last year, we were so happy to be in that game. I don't know if they were really ready for the moment. We were coming off an emotional win at home, and that hurt us. As the game kept going we just didn't have anybody that was going to step up and make a play at that point.
"This year we had a lot of guys step up and make plays. I think a lot of that is just feeling comfortable with your team, feeling comfortable with everything that's going on, and having a little bit more experience. And experience is huge in a game like this. Huge. And we didn't know each other as well as a team last year. We were coming off a lockout. We're a much closer team now."
There was, of course, another major difference in the 49ers team that fought back from Sunday's early deficit: Kaepernick. The second-year quarterback, thrust into the lineup after starter Alex Smith suffered a concussion in a mid-November tie against the St. Louis Rams, had a stellar debut, leading the Niners to a 32-7 victory over the Chicago Bears on Monday Night Football.
The thought of benching Smith, the league's No. 3-rated passer at the time, was radical by NFL standards. Harbaugh, however, embraced the move to the athletic, strong-armed-yet-inexperienced Kaepernick, and York supported it without reservation.
"After the [Bears] game, Jim and I sat down [in his office] and I asked him, 'What's your gut?' " York recalled. "He said, 'Kaep. You OK [with that]?' I said, 'It's your team. You've got to go after it. Whatever you think works. I can defend either decision, and I understand either decision.'
"I trust Jim. You either trust your coach or you don't. Obviously time will tell. I think it proved to be a good move. You see the evidence. He's playing well. Jim made a gutsy, gutsy call. And I don't know that there's any other coach in the league that would have made that call."
Eight days earlier, when Kaepernick ran for 181 yards (the biggest single-game total for a quarterback in NFL history, postseason or otherwise) and threw for 263 in a 45-31 divisional-round victory over the Green Bay Packers, it was obvious that Harbaugh's call had been the right one. On Sunday, as York sat in his luxury box holding his 3-month-old son, Jaxon, as a sort of calming charm, Kaepernick (16-of-21, 233 yards, one touchdown) coolly engineered the touchdown drive that got the 49ers back into the game.
With Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan – the Niners' head coach from 2005-08 – smartly crafting a game plan that sealed the edges, Kaepernick (two carries, 21 yards) was negated as a rushing threat. Instead, the 49ers pounded the middle with veteran running back Frank Gore (21 carries, 90 yards, two touchdowns) and used shifty rookie LaMichael James (five carries, 34 yards, one TD) as a change-of-pace runner.
And while Kaepernick got the ball to wideouts Michael Crabtree (six catches, 57 yards) and Randy Moss (three catches, 46 yards), his primary target was the Forgotten Man: Davis, who after clicking with Kaepernick in that debut game against the Bears became a non-factor over the next seven contests, catching just 17 passes for 105 yards and no touchdowns during that span.
On Sunday, he gained 106, on five catches, including a second-quarter touchdown.
"Man, he showed up – and we needed that," fellow tight end Delanie Walker said of Davis. "We said that all week, 'We're gonna need you to show up, Vernon.' And there he was, getting open, making big plays, taking the ball to the end zone, blocking his butt off downfield. Vernon's come a long way."
When Davis caught a 4-yard scoring pass from Kaepernick with 1:55 remaining in the first half, cutting Atlanta's lead to 17-14, the Niners looked ready to seize control of the game. It was a premature sensation, however: Ryan (30-of-42, 396 yards, three touchdowns, one interception) drove the Falcons 80 yards on seven plays over the next 90 seconds, finishing with a pinpoint, 10-yard touchdown pass to future Hall of Fame tight end Tony Gonzalez that pushed the halftime lead to 10.
Atlanta, however, would score no more. The Niners' defense came through with a pair of third-quarter takeaways in San Francisco territory, yet the 49ers, who had closed to 24-21 on Gore's 5-yard scoring run early in the third quarter, came away empty on both drives following the turnovers. First David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and bounced wide, and then Crabtree, after catching a short pass from Kaepernick, was stripped by Atlanta cornerback Dunta Robinson while lunging for the goal line.
"I was trying to make it in, man," Crabtree said later, shaking his head.
Yet even after that potentially deflating fumble, the Niners resisted the temptation to let the stress of the moment overtake them.
"We just said, 'We'll do it again,' " guard Alex Boone said. "Crab told us, 'Hey, that was my fault. I'll make up for it.' That's one thing about this team. You can't break us."
After forcing a three-and-out, the 49ers finally got the go-ahead touchdown, with Crabtree's 8-yard reception setting up a first-and-goal from the 9, and Gore taking a read-option handoff and sprinting untouched to the end zone with 8:23 remaining.
Ryan took over at his own 20 and drove the Falcons into the red zone, where the game would essentially be decided. On second-and-9 from the San Francisco 15, he threw a 5-yard pass to running back Jason Snelling while absorbing a hard hit from linebacker Ahmad Brooks, resulting in a trip to the turf that would separate his left (non-throwing shoulder). On third-and-4 he sprinted right and threw hard for White, but Brooks leaped to deflect the ball, and heart rates all over Georgia and northern California accelerated in unison.
It was fourth-and-4 from the 10 with 1:13 remaining, a play that would define two teams' seasons. One would be ensuring its presence in New Orleans; the other would be heading into an offseason of frustration. Upstairs in his box, York watched nervously with a crowd that included his parents, John and Denise DeBartolo York, and Eddie DeBartolo, Denise's brother, who was one of the team's honorary captains and who has a history of nerve-induced disappearances at such moments.
Ryan dropped back and threw hard over the middle to White, near the first-down marker. Pro Bowl inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman, in a play that evoked memories of San Diego Chargers linebacker Dennis Gibson's end-zone breakup of a Neil O'Donnell pass in the 1994 AFC championship game, closed hard over the back of White and blew up the play, with the ball falling innocuously to the turf.
"Bow made a hell of a play," Justin Smith said. "A season-saving play."
After Ryan's pressured, desperation throw in the final seconds fell way short, with Jones getting taken down 35 yards short of the end zone, the Niners – and all of San Francisco – celebrated like it was 1989.
The 49ers won five Super Bowls between the 1981 and '94 seasons, and now they'll have a chance to win another. And even the man who was denied an opportunity to lead them couldn't help but bask in the glow of Sunday's impressive display of indefatigable spirit.
"I'm so happy, man," Alex Smith said afterward as he dressed alone at his locker. "This is so surreal. It's such a crazy time, such a crazy moment. Obviously, it's been a unique year, and it would be great to be in there. But I couldn't be happier. This is a great group of guys, and they're all Super Bowl bound. I'm just so happy for all of them."
Smith should be: Thanks to the Niners' resilience, the Silver Linings Playbook can stay stashed away.
Instead, for the first time in nearly two decades, the 49ers will be going for the gold.
1. Earlier this month, Ravens wideout Anquan Boldin told me how the memory of last year's heartbreaking AFC championship game defeat to the Patriots at Gillette Stadium galvanized him and his teammates throughout the 2012 season. On Sunday, Boldin – who'd already gone all Joe Namath/Plaxico Burress by predicting that the underdog Ravens would win – made sure this game wouldn't come down to a last-minute mishap, catching a pair of fourth-quarter touchdown passes to provide Baltimore with a 15-point cushion. "Not this time around," Boldin said via text after the Ravens returned to Baltimore late Sunday night. Boldin also alluded to the inevitability of this Ravens team having to return to Foxborough to overcome its demons from a year ago: "No other way."
2. The Ravens, coming off upset victories over iconic quarterbacks Peyton Manning (Broncos) and Tom Brady, are early 4 ½-point Super Bowl underdogs. Boldin loves it. "We always are," he said. Four years ago, with the Cardinals, Boldin came within 35 seconds of becoming a champion. My initial gut feeling is that he has a good chance of getting a ring this time.
3. When Ravens safety Bernard Pollard put a vicious hit on Stevan Ridley, forcing a fourth-quarter fumble and compelling the New England running back to take an impromptu nap on the field (before leaving the game), it continued a pattern of Patriot-pummeling that previously claimed Tom Brady, Wes Welker and Rob Gronkowski as victims. You know how Harry Potter felt about dementors? That's the sensation the Pats experience when Pollard is across the line of scrimmage, only with more of a chilling, soul-sucking effect.
4. While a lot of outsiders bristle at my efforts to draw attention to the lack of opportunities being afforded to minorities in the recent coach and general manager hiring cycle, the positive feedback I've received from players, coaches, scouts and personnel executives – many of them Caucasian – convinces me that the issue is worthy of examination. It should also be noted that newly promoted Ravens offensive coordinator (and former Colts head coach) Jim Caldwell, in his first-ever stint as a play-caller, is absolutely killing it right now. I expect Caldwell, former Raiders head coach Hue Jackson, Stanford coach David Shaw (who I met outside the Dome before Sunday's game), former Bears coach Lovie Smith and Browns defensive coordinator Ray Horton to be among the minorities getting legitimate looks as head-coaching candidates a year from now.
5. If Manti Te'o is indeed telling the truth about his imaginary girlfriend, I expect the ex-Notre Dame linebacker to score about a three on the Wonderlic test at the combine next month. On a positive note, he can spend some of his free time between now and then watching "Animal House" and getting dating tips from Eric (Otter) Stratton, whose relationship with the late Fawn Lebowitz was slightly more believable.
ONE THING I CAN'T COMPREHEND
1. That, yet again on Sunday, a league-provided shuttle bus driver managed to botch a ride from the media hotel in Buckhead to the Georgia Dome. It's nothing personal, but when driving from Point A to Point B is your sole duty for the day, and when you have a police escort and GPS technology at your disposal, I implore you to do better. And yes, I say this realizing that I have way too good of a life, and that complaints like this make me seem like a jerk, and that most of you can't comprehend why I would voice this one publicly. In fact, most of you would probably like to tell me to "Get lost" right about now. Don't worry: I do, 85 percent of the time I take a media shuttle bus. Cue the violins.
2. Why Patriots coach Bill Belichick – one of the greatest coaches in NFL history – has such a propensity for behaving in a manner that tarnishes his excellence. Though Belichick didn't pull a premature peace-out Sunday, as he did after the Pats' Super Bowl XLII defeat to the Giants, he did blow off an interview with CBS sideline reporter Steve Tasker, prompting studio analyst Shannon Sharpe to take a surprisingly strong shot at the man who'll one day join him as a Hall of Famer. "There's something to be said about being gracious in defeat," Sharpe said on CBS' postgame show. "We've seen the New England Patriots five times in the last 12 years be victorious (in the AFC championship game). We've seen the opposing coaches who lost come out and talk to our Steve Tasker … Bill Belichick makes it real easy for you to root against the Patriots. You can't be a poor sport all the time. You're not going to win all the time, and he does this every time he loses. It's unacceptable." The only thing left to do was for Sharpe to pick up an old-school phone, dial up President Obama and ask the newly re-inaugurated commander in chief to "send the national guard" because he was killing the Patriots' coach.
TEXT/DIRECT MESSAGE/EMAIL/VOICEMAIL OF THE WEEK
"Just so tough to take when you are so close. I still cannot believe it."
– Text Sunday night from Falcons center Todd McClure.
"Thanks mikey. Just a bad night at the office..,"
– Email Sunday night from Tom Brady.
Text Sunday night from Ravens pass rusher Terrell Suggs.
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