ATLANTA (AP) — The loss stuck with them for a year, pushing the San Francisco 49ers in everything they did.
They didn’t want to feel that way again.
Not to worry.
The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl.
Bouncing back from a bitter loss in the 2012 NFC championship game, San Francisco cleared the hurdle it couldn’t quite get over the previous season. And, boy, did the 49ers earn it, rallying from an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 on Sunday.
“We worked so hard,” said Frank Gore, who ran for a pair of touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 8:23 remaining. “We knew that we got here last year and it didn’t happen. But we got back and we said to ourselves, as a team, that this time we’ve got to walk through the door. You really don’t get opportunities like this.”
The 49ers used to get them all the time, winning five Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and ’90s. Now, with a clutch quarterback (Colin Kaepernick), a budding genius of a coach (Jim Harbaugh) and a big-play defense, they’re ready to start a new dynasty.
They were one win away from playing for it all last season, until a fumbled return in the NFC championship game led to the winning field goal in overtime for the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
When the Falcons raced to their big lead by the first play of the second quarter, San Francisco (13-4-1) appeared headed for more disappointment.
But no one lost faith, and the 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory ever in an NFC championship game, according to STATS.
The previous 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 appearance in franchise history. The AFC championship game record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.
“I don’t really think it’s destiny or anything like that written on the walls,” 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith said. “It’s the team that works the hardest, prepares the hardest, and has the best players and coaching staff. You pour all that in together and it comes out pretty good at the end.”
The 49ers advanced to face Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks, looking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It’ll be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too; John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.
But Jim Harbaugh wasn’t concerned about a family reunion.
He was hoppin’ mad when a disputed call went against the 49ers on Atlanta’s potential winning drive in the closing minutes. Harbaugh leaped in the air, screamed at the officials and had to be restrained by his staff from charging the field.
But the 49ers stopped Atlanta on a fourth-down play at their own 10, as linebacker NaVorro Bowman reached in to swat the ball away from Roddy White on a pass across the middle with 1:09 remaining.
San Francisco ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Matt Ryan to pull out another improbable comeback.
The previous week, Atlanta (14-4) squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, nearly becoming the first team to lose with such a daunting advantage in the final period of a playoff game. But Ryan completed two long passes in the final 30 seconds, and Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal for a 30-28 victory.
After Gore’s second TD gave San Francisco its first lead of the day, the Falcons took the ensuing kickoff and used up nearly all the clock while going 70 yards. They might have reclaimed the lead if Harry Douglas had been able to stay on his feet while hauling in a 22-yard pass.
The defender slipped, leaving Douglas all alone down the sideline. But he tripped, too, doing well to make the catch without the ball hitting the turf. Harbaugh thought it did, challenging the call, but the referee ruled it a catch after looking at the replay.
That’s when Harbaugh nearly lost it.
It all worked out, though.
“We rose up there at the end,” Harbaugh said. “It was a great finish for our defense, an exclamation point on the game.”
The Falcons ran up and down the field in the first two quarters, piling up 17 first downs and 297 yards for a 24-14 lead. Ryan played a nearly perfect half, completing 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to Julio Jones. When Tony Gonzalez hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, restoring a double-digit lead, it looked as though Atlanta had weathered the 49ers’ comeback.
Actually, the Falcons were done, at least on the scoreboard.
They were held scoreless over the final two periods by the 49ers, who seized on two key mistakes by Ryan. First, after guiding the Falcons into San Francisco territory, he was picked off by Chris Culliver. Then, with Atlanta well within field-goal range at the 49ers 28, Ryan took his eye off a shotgun snap for a split-second and the ball bounced off his hands. Aldon Smith recovered for San Francisco.
“Against a good football team like that, you can’t have those kinds of mistakes,” Ryan said. “We moved the ball really effectively all day. We just had two chances where we were in positive territory and didn’t walk away with points.”
The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, when they won the last of their championships.
“We’ve come full circle,” said Denise DeBartolo York, part of the family that has owned the 49ers since their championship days, “and the dynasty will prevail.”
The city by the bay is rapidly becoming the new Titletown USA. The 49ers will try follow the lead of the baseball Giants, who gave San Francisco a World Series championship in October.
Kaepernick didn’t get a chance to show off his touchdown celebration for the 49ers — flexing his right arm and kissing his bicep, a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.
But 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. Plus, he caused so much concern about his running ability out of the spread option that Gore and LaMichael James found plenty of huge holes.
Ryan had the best playoff game of his career, completing 30 of 42 for 396 yards. His favorite target was Jones, who hauled in scoring passes of 46 and 20 yards on the way to finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards.
But it wasn’t enough to extend the career of Gonzalez, the Hall of Famer-to-be who has said all along this would likely be his final season.
He sure sounded like it was over.
“I’ve had such a great life,” he said. “I wish it would’ve culminated with the Super Bowl, but it didn’t.”
Gore scored on runs of 5 and 9 yards, finishing with 90 yards on 21 carries. James picked up the first TD for the 49ers on a 15-yard run. Davis had five catches for 106 yards, and the 49ers overcame a fumble by Michael Crabtree just short of the goal line early in the fourth quarter, giving the Falcons a glimmer of hope.
“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.”
And no one was thinking about last season anymore.
Notes: The Falcons rushed for only 81 yards and lost Michael Turner in the second half to an ankle injury. He gained 30 yards on eight carries. … San Francisco K David Akers had another miss in a dismal season, clanking a 38-yard attempt off the left upright in the third quarter. … Jones set a franchise record for receiving yards in a playoff game, topping Alfred Jenkins’ mark of 155 in a 1981 loss to Dallas.