ATLANTA — Moments after scoring his second touchdown in Sunday’s NFC championship game, Frank Gore stood in the back of the end zone, turned to face the deflated Georgia Dome crowd and began the first few steps of the “Dirty Bird,” the celebration dance popularized by the hometown Falcons in the late 1990s.
Then, in a move he’d practiced many times, Gore stopped and gave the crowd a dismissive wave, as if to say, “Never mind.”
“I thought about that all week,” Gore said after San Francisco’s 28-24 victory, one that sends the 49ers to their first Super Bowl since the 1994 season. “I told myself, if I get a touchdown, I’m going to start it off and try to mess it up, then tell Falcons fans, ‘Well, forget it. It’s our time.’”
And, in fact, it is the 49ers’ time. The team that came within one win of the NFL’s biggest stage last season is heading to New Orleans, where it will face Baltimore in Super Bowl XLVII.
Once Super Bowl regulars who were 5-0 in those appearances, the 49ers haven’t tasted that type of success for a long time. From 2003-2010, they failed to qualify for the playoffs. Defensive tackle Justin Smith was asked after the game if there was a time he thought he might never get this far.
“Absolutely,” he said, catching himself. “But we’ve got one game left.”
Just as they don’t plan to ease off the accelerator now, the 49ers kept it to the floor in the game. They had to, after they fell behind in the first half, 17-0, as the volume in the dome reached ear-splitting.
While Atlanta’s Matt Ryan was untouched and threw pass after flawless pass in the opening quarter, the 49ers finished the period with no first downs and minus-2 yards of offense.
In the end, San Francisco’s 17-point comeback would be the biggest in the history of the NFC championship game, eclipsing Atlanta’s 13-point rebound against Minnesota in 1998.
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.
Colin Kaepernick, San Francisco’s second-year quarterback who was making only his ninth career start, showed no signs of nerves as he confidently switched out of plays at the line of scrimmage, unfazed by the deafening din. He didn’t run nearly as much as he did against Green Bay a week earlier, when he rushed for a record 181 yards, but he blew holes in Atlanta’s defense with his laser-beam passes.
Put simply by Kaepernick: “Going out on the field frantic isn’t going to help you score points. You have to stay calm. You have to try and lead your team.”
Kaepernick completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown — a 4-yarder to Vernon Davis — and added two runs for 21 yards.
Ryan threw for 396 yards and three touchdowns and was sacked only once. He had a couple of mistakes — an interception and a fumble in the second half — but had his team in position to win at the end. He apparently suffered a left shoulder injury late in the game and was being evaluated by Falcons trainers afterward.
Falcons tight end Tony Gonzalez said the game was probably his last. Retirement is right around the corner for the 13-time Pro Bowl player, with his next stop being the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
“That’s probably going to be the last time I wear that uniform, or football pads and cleats,” said Gonzalez, who caught a 10-yard touchdown pass Sunday, followed by his signature dunk over the crossbar.
“I didn’t want to take them off, to tell you the truth. All good things come to an end.”
The key sequence in Sunday’s game — four downs from the San Francisco 16 — came when the Falcons were trailing by four, starting with 2:23 to play.
Jacquizz Rodgers ran for a yard on first down. Ryan hit Jason Snelling for 5 yards on second. Then, on third and fourth down from the 10, consecutive passes intended for Roddy White fell incomplete, the first one batted away by Ahmad Brooks.