The San Francisco 49ers completed the biggest comeback in a National Football Conference championship game to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 and advance to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years.
The 49ers, who trailed 17-0 in the first half, will play the New England Patriots or the Baltimore Ravens in the National Football League title game on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
The previous biggest comeback to win in the NFC title game was by the Falcons, who recovered from a 13-point deficit to beat the Minnesota Vikings 30-27 on Jan. 17, 1999.
“We fought all game long. It wasn’t easy by any means,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis, who had 12 tackles, said in a televised interview. “The past two years, all we’ve done is play as a team.”
San Francisco last reached the Super Bowl after the 1994 season, when it beat the San Diego Chargers 49-26. The 49ers, who were beaten by the New York Giants in last year’s NFC championship game, have never lost in five prior trips to the Super Bowl.
The win at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta was San Francisco’s first in six road games in the playoffs going back to 1989. It’s only the third time the team has won away from home in the postseason.
San Francisco snapped a four-game losing streak against the Falcons and is now tied at 1-1 in playoff meetings with Atlanta.
The Falcons opened a 17-0 lead one play into the second quarter as Julio Jones hauled in touchdown passes of 46 yards and 20 yards from quarterback Matt Ryan either side of a 35-yard field goal by Matt Bryant.
San Francisco made it a three-point game as Lamichael James drove through the Atlanta defense on a 15-yard scoring run and Vernon Davis caught a 4-yard touchdown pass from quarterback Colin Kaepernick with two minutes to play in the first half.
Ryan then capped a seven-play, 85-yard drive with a 10-yard pass to Tony Gonzalez 25 seconds before halftime to push Atlanta’s lead to 24-14. Gonzalez, 36, is sixth all-time in the NFL with 103 regular-season touchdown receptions.
Atlanta finished the first half with 297 yards of offense to 166 yards for San Francisco.
The 49ers made it three touchdowns in as many possessions as Frank Gore rounded out the opening drive of the second half with a 5-yard run.
Trailing 24-21, San Francisco then missed two opportunities to score.
First, David Akers, who failed with a league-high 13 field- goal attempts during the regular season, missed from 38 yards as his kick struck the top of the left upright and caromed wide.
The 49ers got the ball back when Ryan fumbled a snap on the next drive. Kaepernick drove his team to Atlanta’s 5-yard line before Michael Crabtree fumbled as he was tackled at the 1-yard line at the start of the fourth quarter.
After Atlanta punted, San Francisco went ahead for the first time as Gore ran for his second score, from nine yards, to make it 28-24 with 8:23 remaining.
Atlanta then drove 60 yards on 13 plays before Ryan threw an incomplete pass on a 4th-and-4 at San Francisco’s 10-yard line with 1:09 remaining. The Falcons could only get one play off after regaining possession with six seconds remaining.
The second-seeded Patriots today host the Ravens, ranked fourth in the American Football Conference, for the right to face the 49ers. New England is 4-0 at home in the AFC championship game.
It’s the first time in 25 years that the same teams have played for the AFC title in consecutive seasons.
The Patriots won 23-20 last season after Ravens kicker Billy Cundiff missed a 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds to play. Baltimore in August released Cundiff in favor of rookie Justin Tucker, who kicked a field goal to give the Ravens a 31-30 win over New England a month later.
The Patriots will be without Rob Gronkowski, who fractured his forearm in a 41-28 win over the Houston Texans a week ago. Gronkowski tied for fourth place in the NFL with 11 touchdown receptions during the regular season.
Quarterback Tom Brady led the Patriots to Super Bowl wins after the 2001, 2003 and 2004 seasons, twice earning the game’s Most Valuable Player award. New England also lost in the Super Bowl last year and after the 2006 season.
Baltimore won in its only visit to the championship round, after the 2000 season.
The last teams to vie for the AFC title in consecutive years were the Broncos and Cleveland Browns following the 1986 and 1987 seasons.
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