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 with just over a minute to go.
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 sets up a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too, because 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. “We put in all the hard work and get the opportunity to play on the big stage.”
The top-seeded Falcons (14-4), in what appeared to be the final game for Hall of Famer-to-be 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 have 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.
“We didn’t make the plays when we had the opportunity,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “There were five or six plays, like in most hard-fought games, that make a difference. There were ebbs and flows and changes in momentum, and they made more plays than we did.”
Julio Jones was Ryan’s favorite receiver most of the day, finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
After a first half in which he was 18 of 24 for 271 yards and those three TDs, Ryan made a couple of crucial blunders.
First, he tossed a pass that was picked off by Chris Culliver.
Then, with the Falcons in scoring range for at least a field goal, Ryan failed to grab a shotgun snap. The ball squirted away and Aldon Smith recovered for the 49ers at their own 37.
“Against a good team, you can’t have those kind 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.
Atlanta drove 70 yards, and might have reclaimed the lead if Harry Douglas had been able to stay on his feet while hauling in a 22-yard pass. The defender slipped, and so did Douglas, but he managed to make the catch even though Harbaugh thought it touched the turf. The coach challenged the call, and began hopping around in disbelief when the officials let it stand.
But he got his chance to celebrate at the end.
Gonzalez, who said all year he was 95 percent sure this would be his final season, sounded like he was done.
“I’ve had such a great life,” he said. “I wish it would’ve culminated with the Super Bowl, but it didn’t.”
At least Gonzalez finally won a playoff game. It took 16 years to get his first – the 30-28 victory over the Seahawks – but he couldn’t make it two wins in two weeks.
“If anybody out there is saying I’m going to have regrets, I’m telling you right now that’s not true,” the 36-year-old Gonzalez said.