I mentioned on Friday that Jim Harbaugh went to Colin Kaepernick with an eye to getting them further than Alex Smith had last season. Sunday, Harbaugh got his vindication and the 49ers made it through to the Super Bowl with a spirited 28-24 victory on the road against the Atlanta Falcons.
That's not to say it was perfect, easy or very pretty at all. In order to win this one, Colin Kaepernick would have his mettle tested like never before, and the team would have to rally together to overcome a deficit in a hostile environment.
Was this really how it was going to go down?
again ran the read option to perfection, only this time, with the Falcons charging off the edges to prevent him from running, he was instead handing off and letting Frank Gore or LaMichael James run up a generally vacated middle, or zipping passes around to Michael Crabtree, Randy Moss and Vernon Davis. On that first Touchdown drive, Kaepernick completed 5 consecutive passes before James scored on a nifty 15-yard run off the right end.
But with the Falcons now back on their heels, they responded from the 49ers charge with a perfectly executed 2-minute drill. Matt Ryan has made a name for himself for years being able to conduct this drill, and he put on a clinic once Atlanta got the ball back with 1:55 to go before halftime. Ryan covered 75 yards in just 1:30, hitting Tony Gonzalez in the end zone for a huge Touchdown right before halftime to get Atlanta's lead back to 10 points at 24-14, and perhaps restoring some order to a game that clearly wasn't going to be as easy for them as the first 15+ minutes had appeared. The 49ers kneeled on the ball to end the half, but clearly this was going to be anyone's game. Kaepernick proved himself unfazed. The key was whether or not the 49ers defense could slow down Ryan, keep Atlanta off the scoreboard and perhaps force a couple of turnovers.
By all accounts, the answer would be yes, though much like the whole of the game it wouldn't be very pretty. Unless it involved Colin Kaepernick. Then, it was downright gorgeous.
The following sequence involved a steep shift in momentum that might have broken a lesser team, but the 49ers proved that on this day, though they might have bent, nothing was going to break them.
Ryan began to smartly move the Falcons down the field, as he had all day. The 49ers defensive line, that was eventually able to wear down the Packers front and get pressure on Aaron Rodgers, was having no such luck against the Falcons. Ryan consistently found himself with plenty of time, so the only hope for the 49ers defense was if they could just get him to make a mistake...which he did with just over 7 minutes to play in the 3rd Quarter. Roddy White slipped while running a short pass route just inside the San Francisco 40 yard line, and Chris Culliver stepped in front of him to pick off the pass. It was the key play the 49ers were looking for on defense and set up Kaepernick and the offense with a chance to at least tie and possibly take the lead. Kaepernick immediately responded with a long strike to Vernon Davis, immediately setting up the 49ers in Field Goal range. Kaepernick's second, and last, run of the day netted -2 yards, and ultimately David Akers came out for an eminently makeable 38 yard Field Goal attempt. But, Akers has been a liability this year, and there really hasn't been a better option to replace him (another kicker, Billy Cundiff, was signed and then released during the playoffs without ever being used), and this bit the 49ers in the ass when his kick clanged off the top of the upright and bounced backward, no good, and keeping the game at 24-21.
With a chance to grab the momentum back, Ryan again got Atlanta moving on offense, but his fine drive once again short-circuited when he took his eyes off a snap just inside San Francisco's 30 yard line. Ryan never got a handle on the ball and lost it. Aldon Smith, who had intended to blitz, alertly jumped on the loose ball, giving the 49ers yet another chance to grab the lead. Once again, Kaepernick put the 49ers in position to score, this time firing the key strike to Michael Crabtree to put the 49ers in position. At the Atlanta 5, Kaepernick hit Crabtree on a slant, the same play on which Crabtree scored 1 of his two touchdowns last weekend. Crabtree was met by a pair of Falcon defenders at the 1, and when he struggled to try to reach the ball into the end zone, one of them managed to knock the ball out of his hands for a devastating Fumble that Atlanta recovered. Once again, the 49ers had a golden opportunity to grab a lead go by the wayside. This was most frustrating, because you knew the 49ers weren't going to get many more chances like that, and Ryan had been hot all day.
They still had to stop Atlanta one more time, though. With 8 minutes left, Matt Ryan had loads of time with which to work, and work he did, slowly moving the Falcons down the field, spreading the ball around as he did all game. The 49ers still had little luck getting much pressure on Ryan, and he spread the ball around as the clock ticked down. The 49ers caught a break when Harry Douglas slipped while catching—or not catching—a pass when Carlos Rogers had fallen down in coverage. With under 2 minutes left, the Falcons had worked themselves down to the 49ers 16-yard line. On 2nd down, Ryan hit Jason Snelling for a 5-yard gain, but when he released the ball, Ahmad Brooks hit him, then landed on him, separating his non-throwing shoulder. In pain but undaunted, Ryan got back to the line. His 3rd down pass was intended for Roddy White, who seemed primed to score had Ahmad Brooks not batted the pass away.
The 49ers had finally broken through! Finally! Back to the Super Bowl!