Frank Gore crosses the goal line with the game-winning TD.
Like dominoes, the hearts of ATL-iens began to crack and then break as Colin Kaepernick led the San Francisco 49ers back from a 17-point deficit to defeat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 and advance to Super Bowl XVLII.
To quote baseball great Yogi Berra, “it’s déjà vu all over again” at the Georgia Dome Sunday afternoon. The Falcons jumped out to an early lead for the second straight week in the playoffs. Matt Ryan delivered a home run ball, very reminiscent of the pass thrown to Roddy White against the Seahawks, for a touchdown on the first drive of the game. Instead of finding White, Ryan found a streaking Julio Jones five yards behind the defense for a 47 yard score.
Jones made a second, more spectacular, touchdown grab on the first play of the second quarter. Jones jumped over cornerback Tarell Brown, maintained his balance, and tight-roped the endzone sideline to put the Falcons ahead 17-0.
Unlike last week, the 49ers didn’t wait until the second half to make their presence felt. Colin Kaepernick answered the score by Jones with an 11 play, 80 yard scoring drive. LaMichael James bolted around the right side for 15 yards into the endzone to cap the drive.
On the very next series, Kaepernick used his feet and arm to replay the previous scoring drive. The second year quarterback connected with tight end Vernon Davis on consecutive pass plays ending with a 4 yard touchdown.
The Falcons answered with an 80 yard fast break in the final 2 minutes of the first half. With a drive usually reserved for the fourth quarter, Ryan delivered on 6 of 7 pass attempts finding Tony Gonzalez from 10 yards out to give the Falcons a 10 point lead going into the half.
When the teams returned from their respective locker rooms only one brought with them the tenacity needed to finish. “Coming out at halftime, offense had to look at like a shootout and defense had to get stops anyway we could,” said Niners Head Coach Jim Harbaugh.
And shootout they did. The Niners flexed the strength of their offensive line in the first offensive series of the second half. Frank Gore rushed for 24 yards and Kaepernick completed three passes to two different receivers for the other 58. Two of the passes landed in the hands of Randy Moss for 21 and 17 yards. The second pass set up Gore’s first touchdown.
As the momentum swung towards the visitors’ bench, the once noisy Georgia Dome grew intermittently quiet.
Atlanta attempted to answer back but Ryan turned the ball over on the next two offensive series. First, Ryan was intercepted by cornerback Chris Culliver. He followed that up with a fumble of a missed snap inside the Niners 30.
Neither of the turnovers resulted in points for the Niners. San Fran returned the favors with a missed field goal and a fumble at the goal line.
While the fumble hurt the Niners opportunity to take the lead, the defense for the Falcons to a quick k three and out and a punt out of the endzone. Bosher’s 48 yard punt was returned 20 yards by LaMichael James that gave the offense a short field to work with.
An opportunity the NFC West Division winners took full of advantage of. Gore started it off and ended the drive with a 9 yard touchdown run.
With 8 minutes still remaining on the clock Falcons fans remained hopeful. After all they had just beaten the Seahawks with a game winning drive that took less than a minute.
Ryan moved the offense down the field spreading around short passes to his three wideouts. For all of the big throws Ryan had made leading up to this point, it was the easy one he made during the Falcons final drive that would turn out to be the biggest anchor.
On third and two from the Niners 45, cornerback Carlos Rogers slipped and fell leaving slot receiver Harry Douglas all alone at the 37 yard line and nothing but green in front of him. Ryan’s throw sailed forcing Douglas to make a diving catch that allowed safety Donte Whitner to recover and touch the fourth year receiver down at the 28.
The catch was challenged immediately by Harbaugh. A favorable ruling for the Falcons injected a bit of controversy into the game and just about sent Harbaugh over the edge.
It was more of a defining moment than all of the plays that followed. Had Ryan hit Douglas in stride, the Falcons take 31-28 lead with a little over two minutes to play.
If there is a bright spot for the Falcons it would be in knowing their opponents were in the exact same position one year ago.
The problems defending the tightend against the Seahawks were magnified as Vernon Davis racked up a touchdown and 106 yards on 5 catches.
Matt Ryan threw for 396 yards on 30 of 42 passes.
Frank Gore rushed for 90 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Julio Jones and Roddy White both went over 100 yards receiving on the day.
Randy Moss caught 3 passes for 46 yards in his first NFC Championship game after the receivers brief retirement.
San Francisco won the battle of turnovers 2 to 1.
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