ATLANTA — The San Francisco 49ers are headed back to the Super Bowl — and they did it with the biggest championship-game comeback in NFC history.
The 49ers overcame a 17-point deficit Sunday to beat the Atlanta Falcons, 28-24, before a racous but ultimately deflated crowd at the Georgia Dome.
“We continued to fight, and even through adversity we continued to fight,” linebacker Patrick Willis said in a postgame interview with Fox.
Before Sunday, the biggest comeback by a winning team in the championship game was 13 points, when Atlanta beat Minnesota in the 1998 season.
This time, the Falcons were on the other end of that situation. A week after they frittered away a 20-0 lead against Seattle in a divisional game, they couldn’t hang onto a sizeable advantage against the 49ers.
Now, the 49ers are headed to their sixth Super Bowl and first since the 1994 season. They have never lost on the NFL’s biggest stage.
Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick was unfazed by the early deficit, and Frank Gore ran for two touchdowns, but it was San Francisco’s defense that slammed the door.
The same unit that had problems all day getting to Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan stopped the Falcons at the doorstep of the end zone.
With his team trailing by four points and less than two minutes to play, Ryan’s passes on third and fourth downs fell incomplete, giving the 49ers the ball back at their 10 with 1:09 remaining.
The clinching play was an incomplete pass to Roddy White on fourth and four, with Falcons fans complaining that 49ers linebacker NaVorro Bowman was draped on White’s back.
The 49ers got the ball back and were able to burn all but 13 seconds off the clock before punting.
The game – and Atlanta’s season – ended on a final reception by Julio Jones to the San Francisco 35.
Kaepernick completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
Ryan was 22-of-31 passing for 317 yards and three touchdowns but had an interception and a fumble in the second half.
He had a phenomenal first half in directing his team to a 24-14 lead. The Falcons quarterback completed 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions.
The Falcons rolled up 297 yards in the first half, the most the 49ers have surrendered in an opening half since a 30-24 loss at Green Bay on Nov. 22, 2009.
For a while, it looked as if the 49ers didn’t belong in the championship game. They were held to minus-2 yards in the first quarter, failed to pick up a first down, and couldn’t stop Atlanta’s offense.
By the first play of the second quarter — a flawless pass from Ryan to Julio Jones in the corner of the end zone — the Falcons had a 17-0 lead and a deafening home crowd.
As Seattle did a week earlier, the 49ers eventually woke up and began moving the ball.
On its first possession of the second quarter, San Francisco assembled a touchdown drive behind the running of Gore, and key catches by Randy Moss, Michael Crabtree and Vernon Davis. The longest was by Davis, who had a reception of 22 yards on third and seven.
LaMichael James finished that drive with a 15-yard touchdown run around the right side.
That was the half of a one-two punch by the 49ers, who then followed Atlanta’s three-and-out with another touchdown drive.
Fueling that march were completions of 19 and 25 yards to Davis, sandwiching a 23-yard dash up the sideline by Kaepernick. When the second-year quarterback ran a play-action fake and found Davis wide open for a 4-yard touchdown, the 49ers had trimmed the lead to 17-14.
The Falcons battled back, however, answering with an 80-yard touchdown drive that almost consumed the remainder of the second quarter.
Ryan, who wasn’t sacked in the half, picked apart San Francisco’s secondary, capping the drive with a 10-yard touchdown pass to Tony Gonzalez.
Los Angeles Times