ATLANTA -- It was a different kind of numb.
That's what Patrick Willis said Sunday as he stood in the 49ers' locker room in the Georgia Dome, looking around at his teammates smiling and singing. He tried to comprehend the enormity of advancing to the Super Bowl, all the while comparing the feeling to those of a year ago.
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"Last year at this time, I was numb sitting in the locker room," Willis said, recalling the emotions after an overtime loss to the Giants at home in the NFC title game. "I'm a little numb now to the point that we don't know what to feel, it's almost surreal, but last year was a numb feeling because it was like, 'Wow, this is how it ends.' Now we have the opportunity to go play for the main goal."
They'll get that chance in two weeks against the Baltimore Ravens in New Orleans.
The 49ers erased a 17-point deficit and beat the top-seeded Falcons on the road in the NFC Championship Game, 28-24, to earn their sixth Super Bowl appearance and first since the 1994 season. The 49ers have never lost a Super Bowl.
The comeback from a 17-0 deficit was the second-largest deficit overcome to win a conference championship (in January 2007, the Colts trailed New England by 18 points).
"We wanted it as a team," running back Frank Gore said. "It's been a long time since this team has had success. We got there last year and it didn't happen and we told ourselves you don't get these opportunities [very often]. This year we have to do it."
It was Gore who scored the winning touchdown on a 9-yard run with 8:23 left in the fourth quarter, slashing through a Falcons defense that was keying on quarterback Colin Kaepernick. It came after the 49ers botched two chances to tie or take the lead earlier in the second half.
On the Falcons' next possession, Ryan (who passed for 396 yards and three TDs) lost his grip on a shotgun snap and the 49ers recovered. They drove to the 5 and Kaepernick hit Michael Crabtree near the goal line. But as he lunged toward the end zone, Dunta Robinson stripped the ball, and the Falcons' Stephan Nicholas recovered the fumble at the 1.
The 49ers forced the Falcons to punt, and a 20-yard return by Ted Ginn Jr. set the 49ers up with their best starting field position of the game at the Falcons' 38. Six plays later, they had their first lead of the game.
And they made it stand. Barely. Needing a touchdown, the Falcons drove deep into 49ers territory, but on fourth-and-4 from the 10, Ryan's pass for Roddy White was broken up by NaVorro Bowman with 1:09 left. The Falcons got the ball back with six seconds left, but a pass to Julio Jones got them barely across midfield, and time ran out.
The Falcons and Jones jumped out early as the wide receiver caught two touchdown passes and had 120 receiving yards in the first 15:06 of the game. But the 49ers answered with two second-quarter touchdown drives capped by a 15-yard run by LaMichael James and a 4-yard pass to Vernon Davis.
Both touchdowns relied on the Falcons' defense keying on Kaepernick, as his read-option handoff to James froze the defense and a play-action fake created enough room for Davis to be wide open. But a week after running for an NFL-record 181 yards against the Packers, Kaepernick had only one designed run for minus-2 yards (he also scrambled once for 23).
After the 49ers cut the lead to 17-14, Ryan threw a 10-yard TD pass to Tony Gonzalez with 25 seconds left in the half. Gore's 5-yard touchdown run made it 24-21 in the third quarter.
"Man, you never see nobody do that with a team like Atlanta," Gore said of coming back from 17-0 and holding the Falcons scoreless in the second half. "A great offense, Matt Ryan and the receivers, great. But we did it."