This one hurt. The Atlanta Falcons, hosting the NFC Championship game for the first time in its history, led by 17 points in a near-deafening Georgia Dome Sunday afternoon. They were, as their mantra goes, “rising up.”
In the end, though, the Falcons only rose so high and the San Francisco 49ers battled back to take a 28-24 victory in advancing to the Super Bowl in New Orleans in two weeks. They will face the Baltimore Ravens, who dominated the New England Patriots on the road, 28-13, setting up the Brother Bowl — San Francisco coach Jim Harbaugh vs. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh.
“I don’t know if we had a dream this big,” John Harbaugh said of his brother. “We had a few dreams, we had a few fights, we had a few arguments — just like all brothers.”
The Super Bowl has the potential to be a must-watch game, with Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis playing the final game of his remarkable career.
“This is our time. This is our time,” Lewis, who had 14 tackles Sunday, said.
The Falcons, meanwhile, will have a long, disappointing offseason of “what ifs.” It seemed they were destined for their first Super Bowl appearance since 1998 when Julio Jones took two Matt Ryan passes for touchdowns and Atlanta led 17-0 in the first half.
And it certainly seemed the Falcons’ day when the Niners’ kicker David Akers had a field goal bounce off the upright and Michael Crabtree fumbled at the goal line after two Atlanta turnovers. But the 49ers prevailed nonetheless on a defense that got it together and an offense that was efficient if not explosive.
Quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running back Frank Gore led a potent San Francisco attack that finally pulled ahead in the fourth quarter on Gore’s late touchdown run.
The top-seeded Falcons (14-4) tried to pull out another season-saving drive at the end, but Ryan’s fourth-down pass to Roddy White with 1:13 remaining was knocked down by San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman.
The 49ers (13-4-1) will attempt to join Pittsburgh as the only teams with six Super Bowl championships. The victory made up for last year’s overtime thriller with the New York Giants in the NFC title game. For the Falcons, it was a difficult result to accept.
“We just didn’t get it done today,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “It’s a hard-working group of guys that have had a lot of fun on this journey … We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunities. There were ebbs and flows in the game. And they made more than us.”
The defeat likely marked the end of the career of tight end Tony Gonzalez, who said he would retire after 16 brilliant seasons.
“That’s probably going to be the last time I wear that uniform or football pads and cleats,” he said. “I didn’t want to take it off, tell you the truth. All good things come to an end. And like I said all season along, this is probably my last one. But what an unbelievable ride.”