SANTA CLARA -- For the 49ers to reach the Super Bowl in New Orleans, they'll need to go through Atlanta.
The itinerary was determined Sunday when the Atlanta Falcons, the No. 1 seed in the NFC, beat the Seattle Seahawks 30-28 on a field goal with eight seconds to play. Had Seattle won, the 49ers would have hosted the Seahawks next Sunday.
The 49ers (12-4-1) were installed as three-point favorites over the Falcons (14-3).
"Atlanta it is," running back Anthony Dixon said on his Twitter account. "This shall be interesting. Oh so excited."
Coach Jim Harbaugh was unavailable for comment -- a news conference is scheduled Monday morning at 11:30 -- but the stakes are clear.
"This is that do-or-die, win-or-go-home kind of situation," Harbaugh said after the 49ers advanced with a 45-31 victory over Green Bay on Saturday night. "So, we'll do the things that we've always tried to do as a team and do them to the best of our God-given ability.
"We want to study for the test, (for) whoever that is that we're playing, and have a great week of preparation. And then come out and compete like maniacs."
The game's top storyline centers on Colin Kaepernick, the 49ers quarterback whose first playoff game was a record-smashing success. Kaepernick rushed for 181 yards, passed for 263 and accounted for four touchdowns, and he now encounters an Atlanta defense led by Mike Nolan, the former 49ers coach.
Nolan, the Falcons defensive coordinator, went only 18-37 in his time as 49ers coach, but he is largely responsible for assembling the defense that has the 49ers on the brink of their first Super Bowl in 18 years.
As a subplot with national focus, Tony Gonzalez, who played at Cal before embarking on a 16-year NFL career, is trying to go out on top, just like Ray Lewis in Baltimore. Unlike Lewis, Gonzalez -- who says he's "95 percent" certain to retire -- hasn't won a ring. What's more, until Sunday, Gonzalez hadn't won a playoff game.
In defeating Seattle -- the Falcons rallied after blowing leads of 20-0 and 27-7 -- coach Mike Smith and quarterback Matt Ryan won their first playoff games. They had lost playoff openers in the 2008, 2010 and 2011 seasons.
While the oddsmakers favor the 49ers in this matchup, history does not.
The 49ers are 1-3 in NFC Championship games away from San Francisco, the lone victory coming in 1989 at Chicago, and they've lost six of their past seven games in Atlanta. Among them was the only playoff meeting between the teams, a 20-18 loss in 1999. Garrison Hearst sustained a career-changing ankle injury on the game's first snap, and Steve Young had three passes intercepted in his final career playoff game.
Division rivals with the Falcons for 35 years before realignment in 2002, the 49ers lead the overall series 44-30-1. However, the 49ers are 5-8 inside the Georgia Dome.
The 49ers are making their second straight appearance in the NFC Championship game, having lost last year 20-17 in overtime to the visiting New York Giants. The last NFC team to reach back-to-back conference finals was the Philadelphia Eagles, from the 2001-04 seasons.
Falcons 30, Seahawks 28: Tony Gonzalez's first postseason victory is a wild one. Page 3
Patriots 41, Texans 28: Tom Brady passes his idol, Joe Montana, with 17th postseason victory. Page 3
Tim Kawakami: The 49ers' season boils down to two road games.