It all worked out, though.
"We rose up there at the end," Harbaugh said. "It was a great finish for our defense, an exclamation point on the game."
The Falcons ran up and down the field in the first two quarters, piling up 17 first downs and 297 yards for a 24-14 lead. Ryan played a nearly perfect half, completing 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns, two of them to Julio Jones. When Tony Gonzalez hauled in a 10-yard touchdown pass with 25 seconds remaining, restoring a double-digit lead, it looked as though Atlanta had weathered the 49ers' comeback.
Actually, the Falcons were done, at least on the scoreboard.
They were held scoreless over the final two periods by the 49ers, who seized on two key mistakes by Ryan. First, after guiding the Falcons into San Francisco territory, he was picked off by Chris Culliver. Then, with Atlanta well within field-goal range at the 49ers 28, Ryan took his eye off a shotgun snap for a split-second and the ball bounced off his hands. Aldon Smith recovered for San Francisco.
"Against a good football team like that, you can't have those kinds of mistakes," Ryan said. "We moved the ball really effectively all day. We just had two chances where we were in positive territory and didn't walk away with points."
The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time since 1995, when they won the last of their championships.
"We've come full circle," said Denise DeBartolo York, part of the family that has owned the 49ers since their championship days, "and the dynasty will prevail."
The city by the bay is rapidly becoming the new Titletown USA. The 49ers will try follow the lead of the baseball Giants, who gave San Francisco a World Series championship in October.
Kaepernick didn't get a chance to show off his touchdown celebration for the 49ers — flexing his right arm and kissing his bicep, a move that quickly became a social media sensation known as Kaepernicking.
But the second-year quarterback who runs like a track star shredded the Falcons through the air by completing 16 of 21 for 233 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown to Vernon Davis. Plus, he caused so much concern about his running ability out of the spread option that Gore and LaMichael James found plenty of huge holes.
Ryan had the best playoff game of his career, completing 30 of 42 for 396 yards. His favorite target was Jones, who hauled in scoring passes of 46 and 20 yards on the way to finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards.
But it wasn't enough to extend the career of Gonzalez, the Hall of Famer-to-be who has said all along this would likely be his final season.
He sure sounded like it was over.
"I've had such a great life," he said. "I wish it would've culminated with the Super Bowl, but it didn't."
Gore scored on runs of 5 and 9 yards, finishing with 90 yards on 21 carries. James picked up the first TD for the 49ers on a 15-yard run. Davis had five catches for 106 yards, and the 49ers overcame a fumble by Michael Crabtree just short of the goal line early in the fourth quarter, giving the Falcons a glimmer of hope.
"I take my hat off to Atlanta. They played hard. They've got a great team," Gore said. "But we fought, man. We fought and we deserved it."
And no one was thinking about last season anymore.
Notes: The Falcons rushed for only 81 yards and lost Michael Turner in the second half to an ankle injury. He gained 30 yards on eight carries. ... San Francisco K David Akers had another miss in a dismal season, clanking a 38-yard attempt off the left upright in the third quarter. ... Jones set a franchise record for receiving yards in a playoff game, topping Alfred Jenkins' mark of 155 in a 1981 loss to Dallas.
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