ATLANTA — The clutch quarterback. The genius coach. The big-play defense.
The San Francisco 49ers are ready to start a new dynasty with a familiar formula.
Next stop, the Big Easy.
Colin Kaepernick and Frank Gore led San Francisco to a record comeback in the NFC championship game Sunday, overcoming an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 and send the 49ers to their first Super Bowl since 1995.
Gore scored a pair of touchdowns, including the winner with 8:23 remaining for San Francisco’s first lead of the day, and the 49ers defense made it stand up. A fourth-down stop at the 10-yard line denied Atlanta another stirring comeback after blowing a big lead.
“Everybody does a little,” 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, “and it adds up to be a lot.”
San Francisco (13-4-1) moves on to face Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks, looking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It will be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too. John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.
Joe Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowl wins, and Steve Young took them to No. 5. It’s up to Kaepernick and Co. to get No. 6.
“He just competes like a maniac all the time,” said Harbaugh, whose much-debated decision to bench Alex Smith at midseason now looks like the best move of the year. “It’s always the same when I’m looking in through the facemask.”
The second-year quarterback, who runs like a track star, shredded the Falcons through the air by completing 16 of 21 for 233 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis, and had them so worried about his running ability out of the spread option that Gore and LaMichael James had plenty of room.
“I take my hat off to Atlanta. They played hard. They’ve got a great team,” Gore said. “But we fought, man. We fought and we deserved it.”
The 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory in an NFC championship game, according to STATS. The previous NFC record was 13 points – Atlanta’s victory over Minnesota in the 1999 title game, which sent the Falcons to what remains the only Super Bowl in franchise history.
In the AFC, the record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.
Harbaugh is hardly cool and collected like the 49ers’ first Super Bowl-winning coach, Bill Walsh, but he has pulled off a similar turnaround in San Francisco. The 49ers had eight straight years without a winning record before Harbaugh arrived from Stanford in 2011.
He immediately led San Francisco to the cusp of the Super Bowl, losing to the eventual champion New York Giants in overtime in last year’s NFC title game, a bitter defeat at home set up by a fumbled return.
Kaepernick guided San Francisco on a pair of second-half scoring drives that wiped out Atlanta’s 24-14 lead at the break. Gore scored on a 5-yard run early in the third quarter, then sprinted in from 9 yards out for the winning score with 8:23 remaining after each team made crucial mistakes to ruin potential scoring drives.
On both of Gore’s TDs, the Falcons had to worry about Kaepernick running it in himself. They barely even touched the running back on either play, and James scored pretty much the same way.
“I kind of figured that coming in and they showed that on film, so I assumed Frank and LaMichael were going to have a big day,” Kaepernick said. “Frank ran hard today, and I can’t say enough about him.”
The top-seeded Falcons (14-4), in what appeared to be the final game for Hall of Famer-to-be Tony Gonzalez, tried to pull off another season-extending drive. But, unlike the week before against Seattle, they needed a touchdown this time.
They came up 10 yards short.
On fourth down, Matt Ryan attempted a pass over the middle to Roddy White that would have been enough to keep the drive going. But linebacker NaVorro Bowman stuck a hand in to knock it away with 1:13 remaining.
The 49ers ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Ryan to pull off his greatest comeback yet.
In the divisional playoffs, the Falcons blew a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter, the Seahawks scoring the go-ahead touchdown with 31 seconds remaining. But Ryan completed two long passes, setting up Matt Bryant’s 49-yard field goal for 30-28 victory.
“We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did.”
Gore carried 21 times for 90 yards, while James added 34 yards on five carries.
Ryan finished 30 of 42 for 396 yards, by far the best performance of his playoff career. But his postseason record dropped to 1-4, done in by two big miscues – an interception and a fumble – in the second half.
Atlanta’s Julio Jones finished with 11 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns.