ATLANTA » Make way Joe Montana and Steve Young. Colin Kaepernick is leading a brash new group of 49ers to the Super Bowl.
Frank Gore scored a pair of second-half touchdowns and San Francisco, after falling behind 17-0 by the first play of the second quarter, pulled off a record rally for a 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC championship game Sunday.
Kaepernick didn’t put up the same dazzling numbers he did in the divisional playoff against Green Bay. But he was solid enough to justify coach Jim Harbaugh’s decision to bench Alex Smith and go with the youngster. The 49ers’ defense did its part, shutting out Atlanta in the second half and making a big stop in the final two minutes.
San Francisco (13-4-1) moves on to face either New England or Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks and will try to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It could be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too, since John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.
"This is what we play for. We play for this moment," said 49ers tight end Vernon Davis, who hauled in a touchdown pass from Kaepernick. "We put in all the hard work and get the opportunity to play on the big stage. So, it’s not about me. It’s all about the team."
Montana led the 49ers to four Super Bowls wins and Young took them to No. 5. It’s up to Kaepernick to get No. 6 when the 49ers play in the NFL title game for the first time since 1995.
The second-year quarterback who runs like a track star guided San Francisco on a pair of second-half scoring drives that wiped out Atlanta’s 24-14 lead at the break. Gore scored on a 5-yard run early in the third quarter, then sprinted in from 9 yards out for the winning score with 8:23 remaining after both teams made crucial mistakes to ruin potential scoring drives.
Both times, the Falcons had to worry about Kaepernick running it himself out of the spread option, and they barely even touched Gore on either of his scoring drives.
The 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory in an NFC championship game, according to STATS. The previous NFC record was 13 points — Atlanta’s victory over Minnesota in the 1999 title game, which sent the Falcons to what remains the only Super Bowl in franchise history.
In the AFC, the record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.
The top-seeded Falcons (14-4), in what may have been the final game for tight end Tony Gonzalez, tried to pull off another season-extending drive. But, unlike the week before against Seattle, they needed a touchdown this time.
They came up 10 yards short.
On fourth down, Matt Ryan attempted a pass over the middle to Roddy White that would’ve been enough to keep the drive going. But linebacker NaVorro Bowman stuck a hand in to knock it away with 1:13 remaining.
The 49ers ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Ryan to pull off his greatest comeback yet.
The celebration was on in the city by the bay, which is rapidly becoming the new Titletown USA. The 49ers will try to follow the lead of the baseball Giants, who won the World Series in October.
The Falcons were trying to reach the Super Bowl for only the second time in franchise history. They came up short, leaving the 1995 Braves as the city’s only major sports champions.
This one figures to hurt for a while in Atlanta.
After a nearly perfect first half, in which Ryan threw three touchdown passes, the quarterback known as Matty Ice made a couple of crucial blunders over the final two quarters.
First, he tossed a pass that was picked off by Chris Culliver, halting a drive in 49ers territory. Ryan ripped off his chinstrap in disgust.
Then, with the Falcons in scoring range for at least a field goal, Ryan failed to grab a shotgun snap, appearing to take his eyes off the ball before he caught it. The ball squirted away and Aldon Smith recovered for the 49ers at their own 37.
"Against a good team, you can’t have those of mistakes," Ryan said.
San Francisco also squandered some chances. Struggling kicker David Akers clanked a 38-yard field goal try off the upright, and Michael Crabtree fumbled just short of the goal line, the ball stripped away by Dunta Robinson and recovered by Stephen Nicholas. But, after that big defensive stop with 13 1-2 minutes remaining, the Falcons went three-and-out.
The 49ers drove for the winning touchdown.