Final, 49ers 28-24: Matt Ryan’s final desperation heave fell far short of the end zone, and the 49ers are headed to New Orleans. This cannot be seen as anything other than an epic choke by Falcons fans, who saw a 17-0 lead evaporate in the greatest comeback in NFC Championship Game history. Ryan was stellar early on, but a pair of turnovers killed promising drives and continued to leave the door open for the opportunistic opponents.
This will be San Francisco’s first Super Bowl appearance since 1994. The Niners’ opposition will be decided in just a few short hours, as the Patriots and Ravens are slated to begin the AFC Championship Game in less than 20 minutes.
Fourth quarter, 0:13, 49ers 28-24: San Francisco goes three-and-out. Atlanta will get one more shot as Lee lines up to punt from his own goal line.
Fourth quarter, 1:09, 49ers 28-24: Ryan’s pass to White on fourth-and-four falls incomplete, and the 49ers will take over. Novarro Bowman was all over White in coverage, but the refs conclude that it was inside the rules. Now all San Francisco needs to do is run out the clock.
Fourth quarter, 3:53, 49ers 28-24: This may be the turning point in the game. A post-wheel route combination leaves Atlanta’s Harry Douglas wide open down the ride side, but the wideout stumbles and bobbles Ryan’s pass as he falls to the ground. It’s ruled a catch, and confirmed after a 49ers challenge — much to the chagrin of coach Jim Harbaugh. The Niners are heated by the call, but Douglas should be angry at himself. If he keeps his feet, he can stroll into the end zone with ease.
Fourth quarter, 8:23, 49ers 28-24: A sense of déjà vu is setting in at the Georgia Dome, as Frank Gore goes in untouched from nine yards out to give the 49ers their first lead of the day. Though he has been largely overshadowed by Kaepernick’s historic performance last week, Gore has been a stud this postseason. The veteran tailback ran for 119 yards against the Packers and has already rushed 18 times for 80 yards and two scores today.
Fourth quarter, 13:30, Falcons 24-21: Incredible turn of events in Atlanta. A questionable roughing-the-passer call on third down and a 33-yard catch-and-run by Michael Crabtree brought the Niners down to the Atlanta five-yard line, but Dunta Robinson ripped the ball from Crabtree’s hands inches from the goal line on the next snap, and the Falcons recovered at their own one-yard line. What a game we have here.
Third quarter, 0:55, Falcons 24-21: A second consecutive Atlanta drive ends with a Matt Ryan miscue. The quarterback took his eyes off a shotgun snap from center Todd McClure, and Aldon Smith pounced on it, giving the Niners the ball at their own 38-yard line. It was just the second lost fumble of the season for Ryan.
Third quarter, 5:47, Falcons 24-21: David Akers’ woes continue. The once-automatic kicker saw his first field goal attempt of the day bounce off the left upright, preserving Atlanta’s three-point lead. It was the 14th miss of the season for the six-time Pro Bowler, more than any kicker in the league.
Third quarter, 7:38, Falcons 24-21: One of the biggest keys going forward will be San Francisco’s ability to hassle Matt Ryan, which the 49ers finally accomplished midway through the third. Isaac Sopoaga took down Ryan for the Niners’ first sack of the game one play before a pass intended for Roddy White ended up in the arms of defensive back Chris Culliver. White appeared to slip on the play, giving San Fran the ball near midfield.
Third quarter, 10:47, Falcons 24-21: Another big grab by Moss sets up a five-yard scoring run by Frank Gore to bring San Francisco to within a field goal. After looking anemic for much of the first half, the Niners have now scored on three straight drives.
Third quarter, 14:30, Falcons 24-14: Randy Moss gets a nice pickup down the sideline to open the second half.
The Falcons last played in an NFC Championship Game in 1999. Their biggest threat that day? Randy Moss, who caught six balls for 75 yards and a touchdown for the heavily favored Minnesota Vikings. Atlanta upset the Vikings, who had finished the regular season 15-1, before falling to Denver in Super Bowl XXXIII.
Halftime, Falcons 24-14: Ryan must have heard the critics saying that he can’t win the big game. The Falcons quarterback has already surpassed his yardage total from last week, completing 18 of 24 passes for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the first half. He has spread the love, connecting with White, Jones and Gonzalez at five times apiece.
But last week showed us that no leads are safe in Atlanta, and Kaepernick and the Niners did a nice job of preventing this one from getting out of hand. San Francisco will receive to open the second half.
Second quarter, 0:25, Falcons 24-14: You really can’t leave any time on the clock for Ryan and Co., as Matty Ice marched the Falcons right back down the field. In a drive reminiscent of last week’s game-winning one against Seattle, Ryan employed a steady dose of his three favorite targets before connecting for a touchdown with Gonzalez, who, in his customary fashion, emphatically dunked the ball over the goal post.
With all respects to Tom Brady and the Patriots, you won’t see a much more efficient two-minute drill in the NFL.
Second quarter, 1:55, Falcons 17-14: Where has Vernon Davis been lately? After totaling just seven catches in his last seven games, the tight end has caught four balls for 75 yards in the first half today, including a four-yard touchdown catch that brought the Niners back to within three points. The score capped an 88-yard drive that saw Kaepernick use his feet for the first time today, taking off for 23 yards down the left sideline.
Second quarter, 8:08, Falcons 17-7: Finally, we see some offense from San Francisco. An 11-play, 80-yard drive culminates in a 15-yard touchdown run by LaMichael James to get the Niners on the board.
A delay of game penalty on third-and-two could have proven costly, but Kaepernick hit tight end Vernon Davis for 27 yards and a huge first down to set up James’ score.
Second quarter, 14:54, Falcons 17-0: That did not take long. Ryan hits Jones again with a perfectly placed pass in the corner of the end zone, and the wideout does a nifty job of getting his feet down. Jones is already within 30 yards of his season high of 147, set in a win over Tampa Bay on Nov. 25.
End of first quarter, Falcons 10-0: A 23-yard strike from Ryan to White brings the Falcons into red zone once again. The Boston College grad was near-perfect in the first, going 10-for-13 for 162 yards and a score. What’s shocking is the absence of any semblance of a pass rush on the Niners’ side, as Aldon Smith, Justin Smith and Patrick Willis have been non-factors.
First quarter, 3:20, Falcons 10-0: Last week’s hero, Matt Bryant, drills a 35-yard field goal to give the Birds a 10-point lead. Atlanta has possessed the ball for 9:59 so far, compared to the Niners’ 1:41. San Francisco could really use a long, sustained drive to get back in this one.
First quarter, 5:10, Falcons 7-0: Slight delay down on the field as a security guard gets knocked to the ground by a sliding Jones. He’s receiving some medical attention on the sideline, but he appears to be OK.
I can’t say the same for San Fran’s pass defense, as Ryan has completed seven of nine passes and is already over the 100-yard mark. The 49ers’ vaunted defensive front has been able to contain Michael Turner and Jacquizz Rodgers thus far, however, holding the two backs to eight yards on five carries.
First quarter, 9:43, Falcons 7-0: Three plays, one yard. Not the response San Francisco was looking for. Luckily Niners punter Andy Lee is one of the best in the game, and he pins Atlanta at its own 17 with a 62-yard boot.
First quarter, 11:24, Falcons 7-0: Well, whatever plan the Niners’ D had did not work on the game’s first drive, as Ryan connected with a wide-open Jones for a 46-yard touchdown strike. The seven-play drive also included a 13-yard catch by Jones and a 16-yard grab by White. Let’s see how Colin Kaepernick and the Niners respond.
First quarter, 15:00: The Falcons win the toss and send their offense out on the field first. We’ll see what this 49ers defense has planned to shut down Ryan’s top targets: wideouts Roddy White and Julio Jones and veteran tight end Tony Gonzalez.
3:00 p.m.: Looks like Zac Brown Band is the new go-to for the National Anthem. They performed it before the BCS National Championship two weeks ago as well.
2:40 p.m.: We’re just under 30 minutes from kickoff, and the Georgia Dome has become a sea of red. That crowd has given Atlanta quite the home-field advantage this year, as the Falcons have lost just once in their building.
Do you think they will continue that home dominance, or will the Niners spoil the party? Tweet your thoughts and predictions to @ZackCoxNESN.
2 p.m.: The inactives list has come out, and several key playmakers appear to be ready to suit up for this NFC showdown.
Atlanta Falcons defensive end John Abraham is active after missing most of last Sunday’s win in the divisional round. He had a left ankle injury and was listed as “questionable” on the last injury report.
Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux is also active. He was “questionable” with a shoulder injury.
For the 49ers, both defensive tackle Justin Smith, who was “probable” with an elbow/triceps injury, and wide receiver Michael Crabtree, who was accused of sexual assault this week, are also active. Wide receiver Chad Hall was also added to the active roster Saturday.
Here are the inactives:
QB Scott Tolzien
RB Jewel Hampton
G Joe Looney
NT Ian Williams
DL Tony Jerod-Eddie
LB Cam Johnson
S Trenton Robinson
QB Dominique Davis
WR Tim Toone
OT Lamar Holmes
G Phillipkeith Manley
G Harland Gunn
DT Travian Robertson
DE Lawrence Sidbury
8 a.m. ET: The 49ers’ path to the NFC Championship Game has been a quest for redemption. Atlanta’s, on the other hand, has been a desperate battle for recognition.
The Niners were in this exact spot last season, when dreadful third-down efficiency and a pair of fumbled punts by return man Kyle Williams doomed San Francisco in a 20-17 overtime loss to the underdog Giants.
All of the key players from last year’s squad are back for the Niners, with one notable exception. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick has taken the league by storm since replacing Alex Smith under center in Week 10, running offensive coordinator Greg Roman’s pistol offense like a well-oiled machine.
Kaepernick’s coming-out party reached its peak last Saturday, when he rushed for 181 yards and two touchdowns — an NFL record for quarterbacks — while throwing for another two scores in a 45-31 win over Green Bay in the divisional round.
On the other side, Atlanta finished the regular season tied for the league’s best record but has struggled to gain respect as a true Super Bowl threat. That’ll happen when you lose your opening game in three consecutive postseasons.
Though the Birds finally got back in the win column last week, they were hardly dominant. Matt Ryan and Co. let a 20-point fourth-quarter lead slip away, needing a 49-yard field goal by Matt Bryant with eight seconds remaining to put away a relentless Seahawks squad.
Atlanta will be the host this Sunday, but the Niners are four-point favorites. Who will punch their ticket to New Orleans? Check back here at kickoff to follow along. Game time is 3 p.m. ET.