Super Bowl-bound 49ers not celebrating yet

Aldon Smith and San Francisco's defense got to Matt Ryan in the second half. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ATLANTA -- There was so much for the San Francisco 49ers to celebrate Sunday following their 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.

A couple of the younger players, Ricky Jean Francois and Anthony Dixon, danced on a riser at the far end of the 49ers' locker room.

Team owner Jed York, brought up around the 49ers when his legendary uncle was running the team, teared up while explaining how his own son, 3-month-old Jaxon Edward, had calmed his nerves during a rough first quarter.

But the only NFL franchise with a 5-0 record in Super Bowls won't go into full celebration mode without claiming one more victory.

Let's get that part straight right away.

"We have one more to go and we know that," York said.

Some of the players were too tired to celebrate, anyway. They had fallen behind 17-0 after 16 minutes, trailed 24-14 at the half and needed their defense to hold on fourth-and-4 from its own 10-yard line with 1:13 to play.

"It was tense as hell at the end," left tackle Joe Staley said.

Staley captured the feeling as the 49ers tried to process what had delivered them to their sixth Super Bowl appearance and first since the 1994 season, when some of them were in elementary school and York, now 31, was not yet eligible for driver's ed. Staley, usually quick with a quip, leaned against his locker and struggled to explain how the team had recovered from a 42-13 defeat at Seattle in Week 16 to post its first three-game winning streak of the season.

"I'm not full of quotes right now," Staley said. "I'm just tired."

The 49ers now have two weeks to prepare for their Super Bowl matchup against the Baltimore Ravens. They'll take every additional day they can get after prevailing in a game they had to survive before they could win.

The 49ers have built their identity on defense for years, but Colin Kaepernick's emergence at quarterback was changing the dynamic.

Kaepernick was again outstanding Sunday, completing 76.2 percent of his passes for 233 yards with one touchdown, one sack, no turnovers and a 127.7 NFL passer rating. A week after setting an NFL record for quarterbacks with 181 yards rushing, Kaepernick carried just twice for 21 yards against the Falcons. He remained in the pocket on 21 of 23 drop backs and averaged 11.5 yards per pass attempt when throwing from there.

The 49ers can win a championship with that type of quarterback play.

Yet, for as effective as Kaepernick was passing the ball after a dismal first quarter, the 49ers would not have won this game without two elements they had counted on for years in the absence of a viable passing game: a ground game led by Frank Gore and an opportunistic, physical defense.

Gore carried 21 times for 90 yards and two scores. The pass protection he provided was also critical on a throw Kaepernick completed to Vernon Davis for 25 yards to the Atlanta 4. Gore and LaMichael James combined for three touchdowns on option plays. Kaepernick, who had seven option rushes for 99 yards against Green Bay, handed off all 13 times on options against Atlanta.

Gore remained in full uniform at his locker after most of his teammates had showered and dressed. He cited interview requests as the reason, but if Gore wanted to savor the moment after eight mostly rough seasons with the team, he was entitled to that, as well.

"Came out of college and had knee injury after knee injury, but kept fighting," Gore said. "Same as this team. We kept fighting from '05 to now, being the laughed-at team in the league to one of the best. It feels great."

The 49ers' defense had been less consistent late in the season as injuries sidelined Pro Bowl end Justin Smith while slowing pass-rusher Aldon Smith. Having a bye in the wild-card round was critical to the defense regaining its footing for the Green Bay Packers. Having an extra week before the Super Bowl feels necessary again after the 49ers chased Julio Jones and the Falcons' receivers all over the Georgia Dome, with mixed results.

"It's definitely good for the body," Aldon Smith said.

The 49ers had trouble pressuring Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan until late in the game. Their secondary initially struggled matching up against the Falcons' bunch formations. That combination -- not enough pressure up front, too much confusion in the back -- enabled Ryan to pass for 271 yards and three scores in the first half. Jones had 100 yards through one quarter and 182 for the game.

Cornerback Chris Culliver and strong safety Donte Whitner said the 49ers had trouble getting their hands on the receivers early in the game. The Falcons used those bunch formations with tighter splits to take San Francisco out of its press-coverage techniques, the 49ers theorized.

"Receivers know the defensive coaches tell the players not to press if they get tight splits because there is so much room to the sideline," Whitner said. "So our corners had to play off and that is why they did that. It was just a cat-and-mouse game until we figured them out."

The 49ers had trouble getting to their second and third coverage calls in part because they weren't initially sure which routes the Falcons were running from those bunch formations.

"When we make those secondary calls, we are zoning it off," Whitner said, "so you zone it off until a man comes into your area, and then you lock on."

There were some tense moments in the first half as Ryan conducted target practice.

"It gets heated, but we got inside [at halftime] everything was cool," Culliver said. "We talked about what we were going to do when we see those formations. Once you start seeing stuff and start playing the game, you start jumping stuff."

That's what Culliver did when he picked off Ryan at the San Francisco 38-yard line with 7:46 remaining in the third quarter. The 49ers trailed 24-21 at the time and hadn't been able to stop the Falcons to that point in the game.

There was some thought that Falcons receiver Roddy White had slipped on the play, but that wasn't how Culliver saw things.

"Every time Ryan throws the ball, he throws toward the ground where nobody can get it but the receiver," Culliver said. "But I seen it and ran inside on it. A lot of people thought outside, but I ran inside on that and he tried to go down to it, but I got over him and got the pick."

The 49ers' pass rush finally got going late in the game, putting Ryan under duress on six of the quarterback's final 12 drop backs once San Francisco took its first lead 28-24 on Gore's 9-yard run with 8:23 remaining. The 49ers had put Ryan under duress only three times previously on 32 drop backs, according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Despite the late push, the 49ers remained in danger until linebacker NaVorro Bowman blanketed White over the middle and broke up Ryan's fourth-down pass.

"We rose up there at the end," 49ers coach Jim Harbaugh said, "and it was a great finish for our defense -- an exclamation point on the game."