ATLANTA – It was quite the scene to behold, old 49ers and new ones, celebrating as one.
San Francisco reached its sixth Super Bowl on Sunday with a 28-24 win over the Atlanta Falcons and above else, it felt like a family reunion.
Honorary game captains Eddie DeBartolo Jr., Charles Haley and Bryant Young were in the celebration mix. So were former 49ers defensive backs Eric Davis and Merton Hanks. DeBartolo Jr., a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame along with Haley, joined 49ers ownership and players to receive the George Halas NFC Championship trophy, the sixth in franchise history.
Players rejoiced with massive bear-hugs. They posed for photos with NFC Championship swag and looked as pleased as can be.
In a snapshot, this was the 49ers, a football family unlike any other.
And even better, they did it together. Even after facing a 17-0 deficit in the first quarter, it wasn't a problem. With 53 strong-minded players, one of the best coaching staffs in the NFL today and the support of 49ers faces from years past, the team worked together to get the job done.
"I think winning the George Halas Trophy that's a huge accomplishment," Jim Harbaugh said after he improved his all-time coaching record to 27-8-1, tying former 49ers coach Steve Mariucci with the third most wins by a head coach in his first two seasons in NFL history.
"It's another trophy, you try to win as many trophies as you can," Harbaugh continued. "So, it does validate our team, winning this game. We said at the start, there's three Super Bowls to win. We've won two so far; we have another one in two weeks."
It won't be just a Super Bowl, it will be a "HarBowl," the second meeting ever between Harbaugh brothers, Jim and John. After defeating the New England Patriots on the road, Jim Harbaugh's older brother, John Harbaugh and his Baltimore Ravens will face the 49ers in Super Bowl XLVII on Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
That, too, figures to be another reunion. Only, expect even more of the 49ers Faithful, many of which filled the 70,863 seats in the Georgia Dome.
For now, the 49ers can rejoice about playing one of the most inspired performances in San Francisco's storied postseason history. They also erased a five-game road losing streak in the postseason, throttling Atlanta's explosive playmakers in the second half.
San Francisco, nor Baltimore, allowed a single point in the second half of their respective games. They were also on the road.
For the 49ers, Sunday's performance was truly one of the ages and led the locker room to cherish the moment. Last year's team fell short in the NFC title game; this year's team survived and advanced.
"Today was a different game than last year's NFC Championship Game, we came up with some big stops, big drives and got the job done," Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Staley said on a day where the 49ers were balanced on offense with 233 passing yards and 149 yards on the ground. "It was a hard-fought battle; we stayed within the offense and were able to make plays"
For players like Staley, a first-round pick in 2007, winning with teammates he's played with for six seasons made the victory all the more special.
Staley found teammate Dashon Goldson on the field in the sea of celebrating 49ers. He grabbed his fellow Pro Bowl teammate and said, "This is why they brought us here."
Both shared an embrace as photographers snapped away.
With the 49ers advancing, now nine NFC players will accept invitations to the 2013 Pro Bowl next week. San Francisco's league-high nine Pro Bowlers will instead prepare for Baltimore.
Goldson did his best to lead the 49ers secondary. After being struck with several big plays from Matt Ryan and Atlanta's offense in the first half which caused the visitors to fall behind by 17, Goldson and other defensive leaders preached patience.
"We had to settle down, stick to our gameplan and practice what we had been working on this whole week," explained the 49ers safety who recorded five tackles on the day. "It felt good, that was a good team win. We knew there would be some ups and downs, some roller coasters, like in the beginning in the game, but this game was going to be tough – there was a lot of emotion. Once we settled down, we played our defense, that's what we did in the second half."
When the going got tough, San Francisco played its best football. The Falcons didn't score at all in the second half and when they were driving to re-gain the lead trailing by four, the 49ers stiffened up once more to turn them over on downs.
"That was great finish for our defense," Harbaugh said. "They put an exclamation mark on the game and got the stop."
In Goldson's mind, the second half effort spoke volumes about the character in San Francisco's locker room.
"That's when it counts," he said. "They started fast, but we finished faster… That's what we talked about at halftime, 'We have to finish faster.'"
It was a fast finish, indeed.
The 49ers out-gained the Falcons in the second half 213 to 180, while outscoring them 14-0 in the final 30 minutes of play.
"It feels great, all the hard work, it's been a long time coming," said defensive tackle Ray McDonald, who was also brought in through the 2007 draft like Staley and Goldson. "We've got a great group of guys in the locker room, we have some great coaches and we put it all together. It feels great."
Harbaugh and his staff will continue to push their "carry on with humble hearts" approach throughout their preparations for the Ravens.
"We'll continue with our humility and be ready to play in another two weeks," he said.
Fortunately for San Francisco, Colin Kaepernick continues to lead with tremendous modesty. It's not hard for everyone else to do the same; it's a natural characteristic in the 49ers locker room.
"He played great, I don't know any other words to say it, it was a great performance by the quarterback," Harbaugh said of his young signal-caller who passed for 233 yards and posted a 127.7 passer rating, the fifth-best effort in 49ers postseason history.
With Harbaugh and Kaepernick, the 49ers have become one of the most versatile teams in the NFL. They can run, they can pass, and defensively, they've had success shutting-down both.
"It's great to see the transformation," Staley detailed. "The guys who've been here for awhile, the draft class I came in with, we went through some hard times, some different coaches, but we have something great going here. The coaching staff is unbelievable, some of the plays we have are unbelievable. Our time is now and our opportunity is right now."