ATLANTA (Reuters) - The San Francisco 49ers battled back from a 17-0 deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 on Sunday and book their first trip to the Super Bowl in 18 years where they will face the Baltimore Ravens.
Running back Frank Gore scored two unanswered second half touchdowns as the 49ers, who came up one win short of reaching last year’s Super Bowl, booked their place in the February 3 decider in New Orleans.
Second year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, in just his ninth start, delivered a composed all-round display, throwing for 233 yards and one touchdown while tight end Vernon Davis had 106 yards receiving for a San Francisco team which never lost faith despite falling so far behind.
“We are tough, it is hard to break us. We aren’t going to give up,” said Gore. “We will keep fighting into the fourth quarter and until the game (clock) hits double zero.”
The victory was a record comeback for a team in an NFC Championship game and capped a pulsating encounter at a packed Georgia Dome.
The 49ers, who had losing records in seven of the eight seasons before Jim Harbaugh took over as head coach last year, now have a chance to win a record-equaling sixth Lombardi Trophy, tying the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Backed by a raucous home crowd making a thundering noise in the roofed stadium, Atlanta dominated at the outset with quarterback Matt Ryan leading an 80-yard opening drive that culminated in a 46-yard touchdown pass to a wide open Julio Jones.
After a 35-yard Matt Bryant field goal for Atlanta, the San Francisco defense was clearly struggling as Ryan and Jones again combined to deadly effect - the receiver showing outstanding agility to grab a 20-yard touchdown pass deep in the left corner as the Falcons built a 17-0 lead.
“We just knew we had to score on that next drive. You can’t let a team like this get any more than that,” said Kaepernick.
The 49ers responded with LaMichael James slicing his way 15 yards through the Falcons’ defense to reduce the deficit to 10 points midway through the second quarter.
Suddenly San Francisco’s offense was alive, with Kaepernick starting to look like the mobile quarterback who tore apart the Green Bay Packers last week and turning to recently under-used Davis.
The 49ers pulled to within three points with Davis grabbing a perfectly weighted four-yard touchdown pass with just under two minutes to play in the first half.
Ryan, however responded in perfect fashion with an 80-yard scoring drive in just 90 seconds, ending with a pinpoint 10-yard pass to veteran Tony Gonzalez in the end zone as Atlanta went into the half with a 24-14 lead.
The second half opened with another touchdown as Gore burst five yards to complete a seven-play, 82-yard drive.
After throwing an interception that didn’t result in a score, Ryan then gave up another turnover with a fumble and once again got away with it - Michael Crabtree fumbling as he dove towards the end zone and was hit by Dunta Robinson. William Moore recovered the ball for the Falcons.
San Francisco grabbed the lead though with Gore powering through with a nine yard touchdown run to make it 28-24 to the visitors with 8:23 on the clock.
Atlanta had a late chance to regain the lead but Ryan, struggling with a shoulder injury, and missing injured running back Michael Turner, was unable to convert on a fourth and four.
“This is a group of men who have done an outstanding job but we just didn’t get it done today,” Atlanta head coach Mike Smith told Fox Sports.
“We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunities… there were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum and they made more plays then we did.”
Editing by Frank Pingue and Julian Linden