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Notebook: Defense Seals the Deal

Posted Jan 20, 2013

ATLANTA -- Donte Whitner was yelling and screaming at the top of his lungs.

Amidst the drama-filled scene on the field of the Georgia Dome, the respected safety saw something familiar as he looked into the Atlanta backfield. It was a 3rd and 4 with about a minute left, and the 49ers were clinging to a 28-24 lead as the Falcons were just 10 yards away from the end zone.

Sprint left, Whitner thought to himself. So he yelled it to Ahmad Brooks, who was closer to the line of scrimmage.

Sure enough, Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan rolled out to his right, the left side of the defense. Sprint left.

Brooks heard Whitner before the snap, so he floated back into the flat, reading Ryan’s eyes. The signal-caller tried to loft a pass to one of his teammates, but the ball ended up on the turf. That’s because Ahmad Brooks batted it out of the air with one of his big paws.

“I was waiting on that thing all week,” Whitner said. “That’s a big play for them in the red zone. … I knew that was coming.”

The 49ers needed one more stop.

On fourth down, NaVorro Bowman had another pass breakup on a throw down the middle of the field. Just like they did the entire second half, the 49ers didn’t budge, didn’t give up a point.

Despite allowing 17 unanswered points to start the game, the unit shut out the high-powered Falcons offense in the second half, as San Francisco earned its sixth Super Bowl bid in franchise history with a 28-24 victory in the NFC Championship.

“We have to savor the opportunity,”Whitner said, “understand the moment, stay in the moment and we got to go get this win. We have one win to get to hold that Lombardi (Trophy) and you better believe we’re going to be ready.”

After he led the offense to the second-half comeback, quarterback Colin Kaepernick watched on the sideline as Ryan and the Falcons marched down the field. But Kaepernick knows how good the 49ers defense is, so he never fretted as Atlanta broached San Francisco’s red zone down the stretch.

“Very comfortable,” Kaepernick said. “I have great confidence in our defense. I went out there and talked to them and told them, ‘This is for the Super Bowl right here.’ They said, ‘We got you.’ I’ll take a man at his word.”

Though Kaepernick said he felt comfortable during the game-defining defensive stand, the same couldn’t be said for his coach.

“Comfort is a word that just is not in football lexicon,” Harbaugh said. “You never are.”

All’s well that ends well, though.

Ryan and the Falcons dissected the 49ers secondary in the first half, as the talented quarterback went 18 of 24 for 271 yards and three touchdowns before intermission. His favorite target was Julio Jones, who racked up 135 first-half yards and two scores on seven catches.

The Falcons ended the first half on a high note, putting together a scoring drive in the last two minutes. But after Tony Gonzalez scored his touchdown to give his team a 24-14 lead heading into the locker room, Atlanta was held scoreless.

As soon as the final whistle was blown, Justin Smith was a popular target to be mobbed by his teammates, Kaepernick included.

“He was one of the first people that I met coming here during the lockout,” Kaepernick said. “He’s always been a great guy, he’s always been a hard worker. I always admired the way he works. He’s one of the great leaders on this team and he deserves this.”

As effective as the passing game was on Sunday, the Atlanta rushing attack struggled to get much momentum going against the 49ers all afternoon. In all, the Falcons rushed the ball 23 times for 81 yards, for an average of just 3.5 yards per carry. Smith said the stout run defense and strong 49ers rushing attack, which accounted for 149 yards, was the key to the victory.

With the win, the 49ers got over the hump after losing last year’s NFC Title game in a 20-17 overtime heartbreaker against the New York Giants. Smith said this year’s squad learned from the experience last year and it paid big dividends.

“We were so pumped the prior year when we beat the Saints and we didn’t really know what to do with ourselves,” Smith said. “I think just being there as a team, as a group, top down from coaches to players – it’s on to the next one. I think we’ve got that feeling here. Great, NFC Champs, awesome accomplishment, let’s go win the Super Bowl.”

Smith didn’t play on many winning teams to start his 12-year career, but that all changed in 2011 with the start of the Harbaugh era. After the game, Smith intimated that there were times when he thought he would never reach the Super Bowl.

“Absolutely,” Smith said. “I don’t know how to explain it right now. We got one game left. I think it’s all for naught if you don’t go and take care of that one. Whoever we’re playing is going to be tough. We’re prepared and this definitely isn’t what we came to accomplish, winning the NFC.”

Harbaugh Gets His Wish

Harbaugh made no bones about it.

As he addressed reporters about the epic victory that just took place in Atlanta, he also commented on the AFC Championship that had just started in Foxboro between the Ravens and Patriots.

“Very much rooting for the Ravens,” Harbaugh said.

The 49ers coach isn’t rooting for them anymore. About three hours after his brother clinched a Super Bowl bid, Baltimore coach John Harbaugh led his team to the AFC title with a 28-13 road win over Tom Brady, Bill Belichick and the Patriots. When the final whistle in Foxboro sounded, the 49ers were 30,000 feet in the air on their cross-country flight to the Bay Area.

It was a special day for the Harbaughs, whose parents watched both games from their basement in Wisconsin.

“I want to thank my parents, Jack and Jackie Harbaugh,” the 49ers coach said. “Go Ravens.”

Davis Comes Up Big

If big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games, consider Vernon Davis a big-time player.

The 49ers tight end has been historically good in his playoff action, and Sunday was no different. Davis did a great job of finding open spaces in the Atlanta defense en route to hauling in five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown.

“It feels good,” Davis said. “We’ve been working so hard for this moment and this day. Finally it comes.”

Davis’ 4-yard score came with 1:55 left in the first half, when he snuck out into the right flat uncovered before hauling in the pass at the goal line. It marked the fifth postseason touchdown of Davis’ career in just his fourth contest.

He also registered his third career 100-yard game in the playoffs, which ties him with Dallas Clark for the second-most in NFL postseason history, behind Keith Jackson (four). Davis also became the first tight end in league history and sixth player overall to record at least 100 yards in three of his first four playoff appearances. In all, he had three catches of 25-plus yards.

“This was a critical week for us,” Davis said. “We had to make everything work. We had to. We knew that if we didn’t, then we were going home. Guys weren’t ready to go home. You make it this far, you might as well go all the way.”

Notes and Quotes

The 17-point comeback marked the second-biggest comeback in Conference Championship history, only to the 18-point comeback the Indianapolis pulled off against New England in 2006.

“We worked hard and we earned this,” said linebacker Michael Wilhoite, who made a key special teams tackle. “The best feeling is when you did something and they say, ‘You earned it.’ I feel like that’s what our team is about – we’re about earning things and we deserve to be in this game.”

LaMichael James scored the first touchdown of his NFL career, when we went around the right end for a 15-yard score to put the 49ers on the board in the second quarter.

Chris Culliver had an interception, Aldon Smith had a fumble recovery and Isaac Sopoaga had a sack.

“I can’t possibly tell you how much winning the George Halas trophy means to me personally,” Harbaugh said. “I just thank the players and the coaches on this team for getting that done.”

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