ATLANTA -- The 49ers are back in the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 seasons after erasing a 17-point deficit Sunday for one of the greatest comebacks in NFL playoff history.
A 28-24 win in the NFC Championship game merely required the 49ers to shake off a terrible start in the Georgia Dome and stave off a last-ditch drive by the Atlanta Falcons.
"Winning the George Halas Trophy, it's a huge accomplishment," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said. "It's another flag, another trophy. You want to win as many trophies as you can."
The Lombardi Trophy will be on the line, as will the 49ers' 5-0 record in Super Bowls, when they play Feb. 3 in New Orleans against the Baltimore Ravens, who are coached by John Harbaugh, Jim's older brother.
To reach the Super Bowl, only the 2006 Indianapolis Colts climbed out of a bigger hole, rallying from 18 points down to win 38-34 over the New England Patriots in the AFC title game.
Not until Frank Gore's 9-yard touchdown run -- on a beautifully executed read-option play by quarterback Colin Kaepernick -- did the 49ers (13-4-1) climb into the lead, 28-24, with 8:23 remaining.
Gore, the 49ers' all-time rushing leader who's weathered many storms in his eight-season tenure, couldn't wait to express his joy to reporters. He interrupted Kaepernick's news conference, sidled next to the second-year quarterback and declared: "We deserve this."
"It's been a long eight years," Gore added. "We've been struggling and struggling and struggling. We've got the right guys in front of us to lead us."
Leading the way is Harbaugh, the second-year coach whom players praised for "keeping his cool" and conducting "business as usual" when they entered their locker room with a 24-14 halftime deficit.
Tight end Vernon Davis also spoke up at halftime, telling teammates: "Let's get this. We made it this far. Finish strong."
What a finish it was. The Falcons followed up Gore's go-ahead touchdown by marching 70 yards to the 49ers' 10-yard line. They got no farther, as Ahmad Brooks batted down Matt Ryan's third-down pass and NaVorro Bowman broke up a fourth-down throw to Roddy White.
Earlier on the nail-biting drive, Kaepernick had a message for the 49ers defense, doing so during a replay-challenge break that upheld a 22-yard, third-down reception at the 49ers' 28-yard line.
Said Kaepernick: "I went out and talked to them, told them, 'This is for the Super Bowl right here.' They said, 'We've got you.' I mean, I take a man at his word."
Once that mission was accomplished, the 49ers sideline resembled a Bourbon Street celebration, even though 1:09 remained and the 49ers offense couldn't get a first down on its ensuing drive. The 49ers chewed up all but six seconds, however, and the game ended on a 24-yard catch by Julio Jones at the 49ers' 35-yard line.
A parade of players immediately streamed to congratulate defensive tackle Justin Smith on making it to his first Super Bowl in his 12-year career.
After playing in his second straight game with a partially torn left triceps tendon, Smith called the win "unreal," then added: "We have one game left. It's all for naught if you don't go and take care of that one."
The top-seeded Falcons (14-4) couldn't take care of a sizable lead for the second straight game at home. They blew a 20-point fourth-quarter lead against the Seattle Seahawks before advancing to the NFC title game on a late field goal by Matt Bryant for a 30-28 win.
The Falcons, who led 20-0 at halftime of that playoff opener Jan. 13, followed that same script against the 49ers, starting with a 46-yard touchdown bomb from Ryan to Jones on the game's seventh snap.
That lead climbed to 17-0 when Jones nabbed a 20-yard touchdown catch to open the second quarter. But the 49ers answered with a touchdown drive that offensive coordinator Greg Roman credited for their overall comeback.
"Our first touchdown really eliminated the need to get anxious, greedy or get out of our game plan," Roman said. "Those first points broke the ice."
Rookie LaMichael James' 15-yard run accounted for that ice-breaking touchdown midway through the second quarter, for a 17-7 ballgame.
It wasn't easy sledding thereafter, but with Kaepernick showing remarkable poise and vision, and with the 49ers defense forcing a couple turnovers, the second half belonged to San Francisco.
Gore contributed a 5-yard touchdown run on the first series after halftime, and his 90-yard rushing total capitalized off the Falcons' focus on Kaepernick's running ability.
"We felt we could pierce the middle of their defense, be patient and wear them down," Roman said.
Gore credited much of the offense's revival to Kaepernick, who completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards with no interceptions and one sack. Kaepernick scrambled only once, for a 23-yard gain.
"Man, he's a different quarterback," Gore said. "If it wouldn't have been for him, it would have been a tough day."
Davis had his best day of a subpar season, coming through with five catches for 106 yards and a second-quarter touchdown. That production offset the limited role of Michael Crabtree.
Playing under the cloud of sexual-assault allegations, Crabtree did have a team-high six catches, but for only 57 yards. He fumbled at the Falcons' 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, then redeemed himself with an 8-yard catch to set up Gore's go-ahead touchdown.
"It's hard to break us," Gore said. "We're not going to give up."
Not when it's New Orleans or bust. Next stop: the Big Easy.
Sunday, Feb. 3
At New Orleans
49ers vs. Baltimore, 3 p.m.
Most Super bowl appearances
Games Team Record Pct.
8 Pittsburgh Steelers 6-2 .750
8 Dallas Cowboys 5-3 .625
7 New England Patriots 3-4 .429
6 49ers 5-0 1.000
6 Denver Broncos 2-4 .333
Purdy: Unforgettable game sets up the Super Sibling Bowl. Page A1
After years of heartache, Super Bowl wait ends for Frank Gore. Page 2
Patience pays off as Vernon Davis has breakout game. Page 6
John Harbaugh, above, will meet his brother after the Ravens beat the Patriots. Page 7
Biggest playoff comebacks
The 49ers' rally from a 17-point deficit was the largest in the history of the NFC Championship game and the seventh-largest in NFL playoff history. Here are the top six:
32: Buffalo Bills 41, Houston Oilers 38, AFC wild card, Jan. 3, 1993, at Buffalo. The Bills trailed 35-3 at halftime before winning in overtime.
24: 49ers 39, New York Giants 38, NFC wild card, Jan. 5, 2003, at San Francisco. The 49ers scored the final 25 points after trailing 38-14.
20: Detroit Lions 31, 49ers 27, Western Conference playoffs. Dec. 22, 1957, at San Francisco. The Lions rattled off 24 straight points after they trailed the 49ers 27-7 in the third quarter.
18: Dallas Cowboys 30, 49ers 28, NFC divisional playoffs, Dec. 23, 1972, at San Francisco. Roger Staubach completed a Cowboys rally from a 21-3 second-quarter deficit by connecting on two touchdown passes in the fourth quarter.
18: Miami Dolphins 24, Cleveland Browns 21, AFC divisional playoffs, Jan. 4, 1986, at Miami. The Dolphins scored the final 21 points of the game as quarterback Dan Marino engineered an 18-point comeback.
18: Indianapolis Colts 38, New England Patriots 34, AFC Championship game, Jan. 21, 2007, at Indianapolis. Peyton Manning guided the Colts to their first Super Bowl appearance since the 1970 season after trailing by 18 points in the second quarter.
-- steve corkran