The Falcons have made a habit of rallying to victory, but there would be no miracle comeback as they came up 10 yards short before 70,863 rabid fans Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
It would be heavily favored San Francisco’s turn for playoff magic. They rallied, behind quarterback Colin Kaepernick and tight end Vernon Davis, from a 17-0 deficit to prevail 28-24 in the first NFC Championship game played on Georgia soil.
The 49ers (13-4-1) advance to play the Baltimore Ravens in Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.
The Falcons, NFC South champions and the No. 1 seed for the playoffs, finished 14-4.
“We will bounce back,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “We just don’t feel real good right now.”
As he has 22 times before, Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan appeared primed to drive the team for another fourth-quarter comeback victory after San Francisco took its first lead of the game with 8:23 to play.
The Falcons drove the field from their 20 and were in position to pull out another win, but the drive stalled on the 10-yard line when a ball intended for Roddy White was incomplete.
San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman appeared to make contact with White on the play. Also, tight end Tony Gonzalez was open in the end zone, but Ryan was under duress and didn’t have enough time or room to step into a throw to the future Hall of Fame tight end, who likely played his last game.
“I’m not going to comment about it,” Smith said about Bowman’s jostling of White. “You guys see the replays.”
The game was nearly identical to last week’s 30-28 victory over Seattle, where the Falcons raced to a 20-0 lead, but needed a drive in the final 31 seconds to get into position for a game-winning field goal.
“I think everybody was confident going out on the field,” Ryan said. “We had plenty of time, and we felt confident that we could go out there and score a touchdown. We just didn’t make those plays.”
On second-and-9 from San Francisco’s 15, Ryan completed a 5-yard pass to Jason Snelling. He took a hard hit from Ahmad Brooks on the play and appeared to injury his left (non-throwing) shoulder.
Ryan shook off the pain and kept playing. His passes to White on third and fourth down were incomplete, and the 49ers ran off the field in jubilation.
The plethora of bags of red-and-white confetti and the canisters used to shoot them in the air would be saved for another day.
All week, even with all of the national media buzzing around Flowery Branch, the Falcons, just about to a man, kept saying how they needed a fast start. They wanted to see the 49ers play from behind.
The Falcons accomplished their goal after San Francisco won the toss and deferred. The 49ers elected to let the Falcons have the ball first.
The Falcons came out on fire and took a 17-0 lead behind some spectacular catches by wide receiver Julio Jones, who finished with 11 receptions for 182 yards and two touchdowns.
Smith said his message to the team was simple at that point.
“Never let up,” Smith said. “Never give up. … That’s how you’ve got to play this game in the National Football League. Never let up. Never give up. You have to play it for four quarters.”
While most can conclude that the Falcons didn’t give or let up, something went awfully awry for the defense, which doesn’t seem to like prosperity. Also, the 49ers would show the nation that they could play from behind.
The Falcons’ defense resorted to its leaky ways and allowed three long touchdown drives of 80 yards or more.
But the notion that they lack a common trait of championship teams — a killer’s instinct — didn’t set well with them.
“This is the NFC Championship game,” linebacker Sean Weatherspoon said. “You show me a game where somebody comes in and walks over an opponent, then I guess you can validate (that the Falcons don’t have a killer’s instinct). But I think we just have to finish the game. We do have the killer’s instinct. It’s just a matter of making the plays when you have to. It’s just football.”
The Falcons led 24-14 at halftime, but then the offense stalled in the second half.
The 49ers opened the second half with 82-yard drive and scored on a 5-yard run by running back Frank Gore to make the score 24-21.
Ryan tossed an interception and mishandled a shotgun snap when the team was in field-goal range on the Falcons’ next two drives.
On the 49ers’ possession after the fumble, they were going in for the apparent lead, but cornerback Dunta Robinson stripped the ball from San Francisco’s Michael Crabtree at the 1-yard line. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas recovered.
The Falcons were backed up and forced to punt. Bosher hit a 48-yard punt that Ted Ginn Jr. returned 20 yards to Atlanta’s 38-yard line.
Six plays later, the 49ers took their first lead, 28-24, when Gore scored on a 9-yard run with 8:23 left to play.
The Falcons’ offense was back in the familiar position of trying to pull out another victory in the fourth quarter.
However, there would be no dramatic drive this time.
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