ATLANTA — There was no need to check the scoreboard to tell that the Atlanta Falcons had jumped on the San Francisco 49ers early in their NFC Championship game on Sunday.
Their body language said it.
Julio Jones caught a 46-yard bomb from Matt Ryan, and Roddy White and Jason Snelling practically raced each other to get to the end zone to celebrate.
Jones caught another one in the back left corner of the end zone, getting both feet down even with Niners’ corner Tarel Brown dangling off him.
The Falcons seemed like they would coast to their first Super Bowl in 14 years, and they celebrated like it on the sideline and the stands, racing to a 17-0 lead six seconds into the second quarter.
When it was over, it was the 49ers doing all the celebrating, though, after San Francisco rallied for a 28-24 win that sent it to the Super Bowl.
“They got up 17-0, they were feeling good about themselves over there, and that’s when you want to catch a team, when they’re feeling good about themselves,” said 49ers safety Donte Whitner. “You could see it. You could see it in their body movements and the players smiling on the sideline.”
After losing in the NFC title game in overtime last season to the Giants, the 49ers felt like something had been stolen from them. They made amends Sunday to advance to the franchise’s first Super Bowl in 18 years.
“I feel like we took this from Atlanta,” said Whitner. “Last year we didn’t understand the magnitude of the moment. “We had things out there that were normal, everyday things that we go through in practice that we’re making mistakes on. This year we wanted to seize the moment. Even when we got down, we understood that we could win this game.”
They did it one drive at a time on the back, arms, and legs of second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick.
It was just his ninth start, and the stakes couldn’t have been higher, so there were jitters.
The Niners went three-and-out their first two drives, Kaepernick missed his target on two of his three throws, and got sacked when he dropped back for the other. In a 17-point hole, his only thoughts, he said, were, “We have to score.”
He made Michael Crabtree (six catches, 57 yards) and Vernon Davis (five catches, 106 yards), his favorite targets, and completed 16 of his 21 attempts for 233 yards and a 4-yard score to Davis.
“He played great,” said coach John Harbaugh. “I don’t even know the words to say it. He just competes like a maniac all the time, in practice in games. It’s always the same when I’m looking in through the facemask, that’s what I’m seeing the guy doing.”
After giving up 297 yards in the first half, the 49ers’ defense had to do the same.
Ryan (30 of 42 for 396 yards and three touchdowns) and Jones (11 catches, 182 yards and two scores) shredded the Niners in the first half.
Even after the Niners’ closed it to 17-14 late in the second quarter, Ryan made an 80-yard Falcons march look like a light walk. It took all of 1:30 seconds to put Atlanta up, 24-14, at the half.
“Those guys were perfection,” Harbaugh said. “We needed stops, we needed to rush the passer . . . we needed to get our hands on the balls.”
The tone changed dramatically after the break.
Kaepernick immediately led the 49ers on a seven-play, 82-yard drive, capped by Frank Gore’s 5-yard run to make it 24-21.
On the Falcons’ ensuing drive, Ryan led Atlanta into 49ers territory before he was picked off by Chris Culliver at the 49ers’ 28.
On the Falcons’ second possession, Ryan lined up in the shotgun and fumbled the snap, and Aldon Smith was there to pick it up off the carpet.
All the while, the 49ers ate away at the lead, finally going ahead when Gore (90 yards on 21 carries) punched one in from 9 yards midway through the fourth quarter.
It wasn’t just the momentum that swung, it was the swagger. Gore celebrated by staring down the fans in the Georgia Dome’s end zone seats and doing the Dirty Bird, the dance that became the signature of the Falcons’ only Super Bowl run in 1998.
Ryan had a chance to put together a game-winning drive, and he drove the Falcons to the 10-yard line with under two minutes left.
The Niners feel comfortable though with the game in their defense’s hands.
So on third and 4, when Ryan rolled right looking for Roddy White, only to have his pass batted down by at the line Ahmad Brooks, it was the kind of play the Niners’ defense wanted to make.
And when he dropped back again on a winner-take-all fourth down, again looking for White, NaVorro Bowman was there to break it up, sealing the win.
“That’s what you want,” Whitner said. “As a competitor and a good defense, you want it to come down to the defense making the play to win the game. You want to be that defensive player to make that play.”
It made it easier to forget the plays they weren’t able to make a year ago.
“It just feels good to be here this year and finally get last year behind us,” Whitner said. “All the way up to this moment, everybody was still feeling last year. Whether they say it or not, the coaches, the players, the organization, we felt that loss last year. It was a tough loss for us and we were able to bounce back and get that one this year.”Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.