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.
With that, 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 came up short of their second Super Bowl, leaving the 1995 Braves as the city’s only major sports champions. This one figures to hurt for a while.
“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.”
Kaepernick, who ran for 181 yards against the Packers to set an NFL playoff record for a quarterback, didn’t have much chance to use his legs against the Falcons. He broke off a 23-yard gain, but was thrown for a 2-yard loss the only other time he carried the ball.
But Kaepernick showed he’s more than a runner, shredding the Falcons for 233 yards passing on a 16-of-21 day. His favorite receiver was Davis, who hauled in five passes for 106 yards, including a 4-yard touchdown.
Gore carried 21 times for 90 yards, while James added 34 yards on five carries.
Ryan finished 30 of 42 for 396 yards, by far the best performance of his playoff career. But his postseason record dropped to 1-4, done in by two big miscues — an interception and a fumble — in the second half.
Julio Jones was Ryan’s favorite receiver most of the day, finishing with 11 catches for 182 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He hauled in a 46-yarder less than 4 minutes into the game, then made a dazzling grab in the left corner of the end zone for a 20-yard score. He got his left foot down, then planted his right foot about an inch inside the line — while cornerback Tarell Brown was all over him.