ATLANTA — For years he had dreamed of the moment, and when it arrived early Sunday evening Frank Gore was nearly speechless. He stammered for a moment, with no consistent train of thought. Then he smiled wide.
“I don’t know what to say; I’m just happy,” he said at his locker after the 49ers clinched their first Super Bowl berth in 18 years by rallying past — and then holding off — the top-seeded Falcons for a 28-24 victory in the Georgia Dome.
It has been a long road back to this point for the 49ers, who were one of the NFL’s great dynasties during the 1980s and early 1990s. They won five Super Bowls in as many appearances and had 16 consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, including 10 years with 12 or more victories.
But hard times followed. From 2003-10 there were eight straight years of non-winning seasons that were preceded by a messy transfer of ownership from Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., to his sister, Denise DeBartolo-York. Worse than being bad, the 49ers were irrelevant. But no more.
On Sunday the organization found its way back to game with the Roman numerals. Thanks to a precocious first-year starting quarterback, a gritty and gutsy second-year coach, a relentless veteran running back and a proud defense that was on its heels early but bowed its back late, the 49ers overcame a 17-0 deficit and handed Atlanta just its second home loss in the last 14 games at the Georgia Dome, including the playoffs.
They got 233 yards passing and one touchdown from Colin Kaepernick, 90 yards rushing and two scores from Gore, a shutout performance from the defense in the second half and a reality check from coach Jim Harbaugh at halftime.
“It was win or go home,” said linebacker NaVorro Bowman, whose fourth-down breakup of a Matt Ryan pass inside the San Francisco 10 with just over a minute to play was the proverbial final nail in the coffin. “Those are the words that were said in the locker room at halftime (when the 49ers trailed 24-14), and it just showed the attitude that the team has. We want to win the Super Bowl.”
One play into the second quarter it was hard to envision them advancing to New Orleans. Ryan found Julio Jones in the back of the end zone for his second touchdown of the game, a 20-yard balletic grab that put the Falcons up 17-0.
At that moment Atlanta had astounding advantages in not only points, but also yards (202 to minus-2) and time of possession (11:54 to 3:12). In many respects, it was even more lopsided than the previous Sunday, when they led the Seahawks 20-0 at the half.
But just like the game against Seattle, the Falcons couldn’t stand prosperity. They allowed the 49ers to go 80 and 82 yards for touchdowns on their next two possessions. LaMichael James capped the first with a 15-yard run, and tight end Vernon Davis ended the second with a 4-yard reception. Davis had three catches for 48 yards on the drive, a dramatic departure from a recent stretch in which he had one or no catches in six of his previous seven games.
The Falcons appeared to be wobbling, their 17-point lead reduced to three. But Ryan responded with with 1:55 to go in the half and drove the offense 80 yards for the score, the last 10 on a 10-yard completion to tight end Tony Gonzalez to make it 24-14 at the half. The score was huge at the time because San Francisco was due to receive the second-half kickoff. Ryan could not have been hotter. He completed 6 of 7 passes for 75 yards on the series and was 18 of 24 for 271 yards and three scores in the half.
There was no panic in the 49ers locker room, but there was a sense of urgency.
“We got in the locker room and we looked at each other,” Gore said. “Vernon brought us up, Coach Harbaugh brought us up, and told us, ‘Hey, we got here. If we want to go home and get where we want to go, the offense has to strike real fast and the defense has to make plays. That’s what we did.”
It was that simple.
The 49ers drove 82 yards in seven plays to start the third quarter, with Gore scoring on a 5-yard run to make it 24-21, then took the lead midway through the fourth quarter on a 9-yard gallop by Gore. Each time the Falcons threatened in the final two quarters, the Niners defense stood tall. Such as when Aldon Smith recovered a Ryan fumble at the San Francisco 37 near the end of the third quarter; or cornerback Carlos Rogers made a sure tackle on Tony Gonzaelz to force a three-and-out after the Falcons had recovered a Michael Crabtree fumble just before he was about to cross the goal line; or Bowman’s break-up of that fourth-down pass inside the 49ers 10 with just over a minute to play and Atlanta driving for the go-ahead score.
Afterward, Bowman, with a coy smile, admitted he held wideout Roddy White on the fourth-down play. “He got inside of me, so there was some pulling and tugging” to get back on top of him. Bowman didn’t expect a flag, however, because, according to him, the officials had been allowing players on both sides to get away with things in the red zone.
“We tried to make something happen and we just couldn’t get it done,” said Ryan, who finished 30 of 42 passing for 396 yards with three scores, an interception and a lost fumble. “We fell a little bit short. I thought everybody battled really hard; we just didn’t make enough plays to get it done.”
San Francisco CEO Jed York, the son of Denise DeBartolo-York, made his uncle, Eddie Jr., and former team greats Charles Haley and Bryant Young honorary captains for the game. On the eve of the game, DeBartolo presented his nephew with a photo that was taken in January 1982 at the 49ers’ first Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. It featured Jed, then 5 or 6 years old, holding a sign with the help of his grandfather, Eddie DeBartolo, Sr., who was known as Papa, that read: “Dear Uncle Eddie. I love you and the 49ers.”
DeBartolo framed the photo for Jed and signed it: “Dear Jed. It’s your team now. Love Papa and Uncle Eddie.”
In the locker room afterward, DeBartolo was emotional discussing the resurgence of the franchise — and Jed’s role in it.
“They have tradition and they’re living up to all the tradition that we had,” he said. “It’s hard (seeing the lean years). He’s my godson, and he’s been in the background and he’s taken a lot of heat. … But he’s letting the good people he hired — especially (GM) Trent Baalke — have the autonomy to run an organization, to build it, and to win with it. I thought from the beginning of the year that they were a team of destiny, and I still do.”
Destiny … perseverance … fortitude … talent — use whatever word you like. The only thing that matters to the 49ers is that they’re back in the Super Bowl.