The Atlanta Falcons know their strength, and they went to it early and often. Julio Jones made that trade that sent five draft picks to the Cleveland Browns look like an absolute steal. He was wide open on his first touchdown, and covered tightly on his second. The 49ers were stuck in a 17-0 hole, and even though the Seattle Seahawks proved that Atlanta isn’t exactly the best team at holding leads in the playoffs, it seemed like the 49ers had no answer for the best receiving tandem they’ve faced all season.

It’s fitting that the 49ers were able to pull this game out, because in doing so they’ve broken new ground.

  • The WIN-WIN-FAIL pattern — no more.
  • The 49ers notched their first road playoff win in 24 years, and it came in a dome!
  • Since the 49ers became good again, their detractors have almost seemed to take glee in saying, “This team isn’t built for comebacks.” They came back from 17 down.

It might not have started like many of us expected, but this game went almost exactly according to plan. The 49ers won 28-24 — many of the betting outlets had San Francisco favored by four. The Falcons attacked through the air with long passes to Jones and Roddy White and short throws underneath to Tony Gonzalez. The 49ers averaged 5.1 yards per carry, while the Falcons averaged only 3.5. David Akers even missed a pretty easy field goal, relatively speaking.

What happened that came as a surprise? The Falcons, known for attempting several screen passes in 2012, decided against attacking the 49ers that way. Colin Kaepernick only ran twice, and one of those runs went for a loss of two. And Vernon Davis, much like last January, was the 49ers’ most dangerous weapon offensively.

Frank Gore San Francisco 49ersA game of adjustments

The 49ers looked like a team that came in with two much confidence early on, and the Falcons’ coaching staff looked like the dominant group over Jim Harbaugh and his staff, Vic Fangio in particular. (FOR THE LOVE OF WALSH, COVER SOMEBODY!!!)

The 49ers’ players and coaches turned things around when they needed to most.

After a first half where San Francisco allowed eleventy jillion yards through the air (rough estimate), the game became a classic 49ers tilt in the last two quarters. Atlanta was shut out for the last 30 minutes, while Frank Gore had two rushing touchdowns. The 49ers’ pass rush, nonexistent for so long in this game, started to rattle Ryan just a bit in the second half and played a part in forcing him to turn the ball over twice. Ahmad Brooks’ punishing hit late injured Ryan’s left shoulder to the point where he reportedly wouldn’t have been able to play in the Super Bowl anyway, and that may have contributed to Ryan’s pointless final pass to Jones, nowhere short of the Hail Mary distance the Falcons needed with time expiring.

Through it all, other than two delay of game penalties Kaepernick played a flawless game. He completed 16-of-21 passes (76.2%) for 233 yards — a ridiculous 11.1 yards per attempt. Check out what Kaepernick did after the first two drives led to three-and-outs.

  • 11 plays, 80 yards, 6:46 (result: TD)
  • 7 plays, 82 yards, 4:29 (result: TD)
  • 7 plays, 82 yards, 4:08 (result: TD)
  • 5 plays, 36 yards, 1:51 (result: missed FG)
  • 7 plays, 62 yards, 2:31 (result: Crabtree loses fumble at ATL 1-yard-line)
  • 6 plays, 58 yards, 3:23 (result: TD)
  • 3 plays, 5 yards, 1:03 (result: punt)

Harbaugh has talked about Kaepernick’s ability to respond when things don’t go well, and he wasn’t kidding. Something clicked in Kaepernick’s mind, and he solved the Falcons’ offense (with the help of his teammates and coaches, of course). You’d have to be blind or incredibly stubborn to question Harbaugh’s decision to make the switch from Alex Smith to Kaepernick now. Even the most ardent Smith backers have lost their supposed trump card: Kaepernick has led the 49ers further than Smith ever did.

Kaepernick’s composure was contagious, allowing the 49ers to stick with their greatest advantage going into this game, the ground game. Gore threw a bit of a temper tantrum early on that was caught by the cameras.

Jim Harbaugh Frank Gore mercbrownie

Emotional displays aren’t uncommon from Gore, but usually the guy getting the brunt of Gore’s frustration is running backs coach Tom Rathman. During training camp I saw him having “animated discussions” with Rathman on several occasions, which always made me chuckle since Gore was venting his frustration in August. It’s hard to think of a player who cares more about getting to (and winning) his first Super Bowl than Gore, and now he gets his chance.

This isn’t just about Gore, though. As Harbaugh would say, this was a victory for “the team, the team, the team” (besides Akers, maybe). Nobody had a perfect game besides maybe Davis, but even Tarell Brown and Chris Culliver made up for their respective efforts during the first half with some game-saving/changing plays in the second. Carlos Rogers, who for most of the year seemed like a lesser player in 2012 than the season before, played as tremendously as he did against Green Bay.

I could go on and on, but the point is this: the 49ers escaped from the NFC, clearly the better conference all season, and await the winner of the Patriots/Ravens game. I like their chances against either team.

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Congratulations to Hannah Petrillo, whose prediction (49ers 31, Falcons 27) was the winner of our most recent contest. Hannah was the only person who correctly predicted the 49ers’ margin of victory, and for her efforts she wins a large pizza from Amici’s East Coast Pizzeria!

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This reaction to the 49ers’ challenge getting denied was classic Harbaugh: