Sunday's victory over the Atlanta Falcons was an impressive one for the 49ers on many fronts. Signal caller Colin Kaepernick was still considered by some to be a gimmick quarterback. Some questioned how we would handle adversity and the pressure of an even higher-profile game. Others wondered how the 49ers would handle adversity, noting the team had failed to come from behind all season. And, of course, the 49ers hadn't won three games in a row all season. All of these questions, and more, were answered as the 49ers defeated the Falcons 28-24, claiming a spot in Super Bowl XLVII agains the Baltimore Ravens.
The 49ers came out flat in this game, as they had multiple times during the season. Atlanta sprinted out to a 17-0 lead after their first three possession. During that same time, the 49ers managed two three-and-outs. The 49ers offense had -2 yards total while Julio Jones alone had over 100 yards. Things looked dire. The difference in this game from other matches in which the 49ers trailed early is that they didn't stray from their identity. Too often during the year, the coaching staff would abandon the run at the first sign of a deficit, rendering the team one-dimensional. But, to Greg Roman's credit, the team stuck with the game plan and rallied back to win it behind the strength of three rushing touchdowns and a defense that gave up zero points in the second half.
Colin Kaepernick played a great game against Atlanta. He didn't run for 181 yards, like he did against Green Bay, tallying only 21 yards on the ground with only one designed run. He used his arm and his cool instead, on his way to a 16 of 21 performance with 233 yards and a touchdown. Many have noted that this was an Alex Smith-like performance, and the passing stats, and running stats for that matter, would appear to confirm this. Kaepernick's legs still featured prominently. On all three rushing touchdowns, Kaepernick froze an Atlanta defender with the threat of the rangy quarterback keeping the ball. So, while the Falcons did a great job at not letting Kaepernick beat them rushing the ball, his legs still contributed to the biggest plays.
Frank Gore was, once again, at his best. For the second game in a row during these playoffs, Gore was efficient and critical to the teams success. He finished the game 90 yards and two touchdowns, after netting 119 yards and a score last week against the Packers. He finished with only one game of 80 or more yards in the final five of the season while scoring three touchdowns. In the first two games of the postseason he has 209 yards and 3 touchdowns. LaMichael James scored the first Niners touchdown of the game with a 15-yard scamper into the end zone. The burst of speed that James displayed was exactly what the 49ers had in mind when they drafted him in the second-round this year. All three touchdowns came while running off right tackle.
Michael Crabtree had a quiet game relatively speaking. Entering the game under a cloud of legal suspicion, he ended
up with 6 catches for 57 yards and fumbled on the goal line, his first fumble of the year. 33 of his yards came on one
play. Filling the void for Crabtree was the nearly-forgotten Vernon Davis. Davis, who came up huge in last season's
playoffs, had been quiet for much of the season and finished the year with 6 catches over the final 6 games. He had
one catch against Green Bay in the Divisional Round. After Zach Miller of the Seattle Seahawks went wild on Atlanta the week before, Davis and the 49ers coaching staff began instantly drawing up ways of exploiting the mismatch. They did to the tune of 5 catches for 106 yards and a score. It was his best game of the season and only the second time he topped the 100-yard mark.
Once again, the 49ers offensive line proved why they're the best in the league. They gave up a single sack and kept Kaepernick upright for most of the game. The line, with Alex Smith under center was one of the worst in the league at adjusted sack rate. Since Kaepernick has taken over, they've given up a sack per game, showing their class in pass protection as well as in run blocking. On the ground against the Falcons, they paved the way for 149 yards rushing on a 5.1 yard per carry average. It was the 12th time in 18 games that the team topped 140 yards rushing. For comparison, the Falcons topped that mark twice this year.
Another key for the 49ers on offense was their play in the red zone. Atlanta came into the game having finished the season 4th in red zone defense. With the way David Akers has kicked throughout much of the year, a failure to get the ball in the end zone was a point of concern going in. The 49ers were four out of five on red zone trips, with the only failing coming on the Crabtree fumble at the goal line, which didn't hurt them as much as you might think, as I'll explain later.
The game started out in the worst possible fashion for the 49ers on defense. On the first possession, Julio Jones beat the defense for a 46-yard touchdown on busted coverage. Jones' second score more than made up for the ease of his first. With blanket coverage by Tarell Brown on the first play of the second quarter, Matt Ryan threw a beautiful ball over the shoulder of Jones and the second-year receiver managed to get both feet in bounds with a third tap of the two for good measure. It gave the Falcons a 17-0 lead. Tony Gonzalez, in what was likely the last game of his amazing career, added the finals points of the game for the Falcons on a 10-yard throw. He finished with 8 catches and 78 yards to go with the touchdown and frequently beat the 49ers linebackers in coverage.
The San Francisco run defense held up their end of the bargain. They held Atlanta to 81 yards on the ground on a 3.5 yards per carry average. Michael Turner missed time with injury and backup Jacquizz Rogers was fairly ineffective. With the Falcons being rendered one-dimensional, a hallmark of the 49ers defense in the Jim Harbaugh era, the passing game had to carry the burden. It did for the first half of the game, but crumbled under the pressure of a city's expectations when the game mattered most.
With Jones, Gonzalez and Roddy White receiving 33 of Matt Ryan's 42 targets, and the run game failing to pick up much yardage, it wasn't hard to guess what the Falcons were going to do. It's a testament to the skill of those four players that they were able to account for 360 of the Falcons' 477 yards against arguably the best defenses in the league. Everyone in the building knew what was coming, including the 49ers, but they were powerless to stop it during large chunks of the game.
The 49ers' defense tightened up in the second half. They made key plays when they were needed most and blanked the Falcons after halftime. Chris Culliver was able to pick off a Ryan pass after the targeted receiver slipped. On the following possession, Ryan, in the shotgun, took his eye off of the ball and the snap hit him in the hands. Aldon Smith, who otherwise had a quiet game, was able to wrestle the ball away. The 49ers were unable to score on either of their ensuing drives but that is a bit misleading. Crabtree fumbled after the second turnover giving the Falcons the ball on the goal line. Atlanta was unable to make a first down and the 49ers got the ball back at their own 38-yard line following a solid punt return by Ted Ginn. They scored the game-winning touchdown six plays later. The two turnovers also served to further stifle the Falcons offense as they had only four second half drives with a fifth that consisted of a last gasp pass on the final play of the game.
The game came down to Atlanta's last meaningful drive. 13 plays and 70 yards with the season on the line. Matt Ryan led the Falcons the length of the field. The most important sequence came on a 22-yard pass to Harry Douglas that appeared to move around and touch the ground that was ruled a catch. Jim Harbaugh's reaction was instant and, of course, over-the-top dramatic. GIFs of his reaction quickly circulated online. Ryan got the Falcons to the 49ers 15-yard line with a first-and-10. Ahmad Brooks knocked down Ryan, hurting his non-throwing shoulder, on the second down. On third down, Brooks swatted down a pass headed to the right flat. And on fourth down, NaVorro Bowman outmuscled Roddy White to swat down a pass that would have been caught short of the marker regardless. The game came down to the 49ers' linebackers, arguably the bet in the league, making huge plays with the season on the line.
The 28-24 outcome sent the 49ers on to the Super Bowl to meet Coach Harbaugh's brother John in the Harbowl. It will be the 49ers 6th Super Bowl appearance, having one the big one five times in five trips. The loss for the Falcons will resound for the entire offseason. Matt Ryan came up short when it mattered, accounting for two turnovers and the poor decision on fourth down at the end. After giving up a three score lead the week before to the Seahawks, only to snatch a victory with under a minute to play, Atlanta repeated the feat this week, with predictable results. The 'choke' label that was removed from the team a week earlier may be hurled right back on them and the team will have until September to think about squandering a 17-0 lead at home with a chance to go to the Super Bowl on the line. The day belonged to the Niners, and any way you slice it, the team is on to New Orleans and Super Bowl XVLII.