ATLANTA

Columnist Mark Purdy's early analysis of the good and bad for the 49ers in their 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game. Check back later for his postgame column after locker room interviews.

MARK-UP -- Fittingly, on a team build around a great defense, the defense made the game's biggest plays after a long and trying afternoon. With the Falcons facing a must-score situation on a red zone first down at the at the 16-yard line with less than three mintues remaining, the linebacking corps rose up like the All Pro unit it is.

San Francisco 49ers’ Anthony Dixon (24) , San Francisco 49ers’ Darcel McBath (28) and San Francisco 49ers’ Perrish Cox (20) celebrates a
San Francisco 49ers' Anthony Dixon (24) , San Francisco 49ers' Darcel McBath (28) and San Francisco 49ers' Perrish Cox (20) celebrates a fourth down stop against the Atlanta Falcons late in the fourth quarter of the NFC Championship game, on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013, at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) (Nhat V. Meyer)

Patrick Willis came up with maybe the best series of his life with tackles on first down and second down. Then Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman closed the deal. On fourth down, after Brooks had batted down a third-down pass, Bowman went to his spot over the middle held his ground against a Falcon receiver like a basketball defender trying to draw a charge call and it led to an incomplete pass. There were a few nervous seconds after that because the 49ers had to punt the ball away with 13 seconds remaining and defend a last-gasp Falcons pass. But that close-to-the-goal-line-stand was the decider.


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MARKDOWN -- It doesn't matter at the end of the day, but the game should not have come down to that drive. John Madden is famous for saying that winning is a great deodorant. So we'll just forget about the bad first quarter, the missed field goal and the Michael Crabtree fumble inside the 5-yard line -- at least until they come up in relation to whether they will be issues at the Super Bowl. But the key phrase in that sentence is "at the Super Bowl." For the first time since the 1994 season, you can write "49ers" and "Super Bowl team" in the same sentence. Let that sink in.

MARK-UP -- LaMichael James' 15-yard scoring run for the 49ers in the second quarter looked like a new play installed by offensive coordinator Greg Roman -- or at least an old play out of a new formation. It involved a read-option motion with James lined up in front of Kaepernick rather than behind. If only there had been more such creativity in the first half. The 49ers and Roman essentially threw away the first two offensive drives by calling plays that Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan had clearly prepared Atlanta to stop.

MARKDOWN -- How did Atlanta receiver Julio Jones get so open on the first Falcons touchdown? Unless he somehow used ninja powers to make himself invisible, there was no excuse for Jones being so wide open on his 46-yard touchdown catch less than four minutes into the game. Dashon Goldson and Donte Whitner, the two 49er safeties, wound up looking at Jones' backside and then looking at each other after the play. And neither were good looks.

MARK-UP -- Hard to say that holding Falcons to a field goal with four minutes left in the first period was a huge play . . . but it was a huge play. It meant that the 49ers, rather than trailing by two touchdowns, were behind by just 10-0. That math involving four absent points for the Falcons became much more important as the game progressed. So credit Willis for making good tackles on first and second down to help force the field goal attempt.

San Francisco 49ers’ Frank Gore (21) scores in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game, on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013
San Francisco 49ers' Frank Gore (21) scores in the third quarter against the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship game, on Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta. (Patrick Tehan/Bay Area News Group) (Patrick Tehan)

MARKDOWN -- Perhaps this one should be both a markdown and markup. A concern before the game was the 49ers' penchant for bad penalties and they fulfilled that concern in the first half, with a delay-of-game call that Kaepernick should have avoided by calling timeout, plus a holding call on guard Mike Iupati that nullified a first-down catch by Vernon Davis. That's the markdown. The markup was that the 49ers overcame both by completing touchdown drives in both instances. But neither penalty should have happened.

MARK-UP -- Vernon Davis was the best 49er on the field in the first half, for which the 49ers were extremely grateful. The Falcons' defensive approach had to leave someone open -- and give credit to Kaepernick for finding Davis for four catches totaling 75 yards and a touchdown.

MARKDOWN -- Too many times, Matt Ryan, the Falcons quarterback, was able to relax and have a cup of coffee after dropping back to pass. It wasn't so much that the 49ers had trouble sacking him. They needed to pierce the pocket or throw up hands to cut off his passing lanes or do anything to prevent him from planting his feet, getting him to throw on the move or off balance, so that he couldn't deliver the ball so easily and comfortably. Justin Smith, the 49er tackle with the brace on his left arm, seemed to be getting good push. But fellow lineman Aldon Smith was strangely absent. The 49ers' first sack of the game was by Isaac Sopoaga in the third quarter.

MARK-UP -- For all the 49ers' defensive issues, Willis was fiercely excellent with his tackling form Sunday. There is no NFL stat for "Extra Yards Prevented After Catch" or "Potential Yards Saved by Vicious Tackles." But if there were, Willis would lead in the category.

MARKDOWN -- There's one postseason rule that never varies: A playoff game always exposes a team's weakest link. Hello, David Akers. In a domed stadium, with no wind or rain or sloppy-turf factors, a 38-yard field goal should be automatic for a NFL placekicker. On his 38-yard attempt in the third quarter, Akers hit the left upright and won no prize. And probably won a ticket out of town in the offseason, if not sooner.

MARK-UP -- Have to say, the 49er fan tribe was well represented in Atlanta -- and not just in the Georgia Dome, where its voices were definitely heard among the 70,863, but also in the downtown streets. You don't think about 49ers fans traveling well or showing up in the same numbers on the road as Packers fans or Steelers fans. But this was impressive.

MARKDOWN -- None of those 49ers fans could rush the passer and put enough consistent pressure on Ryan, either. But none were complaining at the finish. They were limp from the tension and ready to train for New Orleans.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.