ATLANTA Their fans may have been pulling out their hair when the 49ers fell behind by 17 points and losing buckets of sweat as the Falcons drove toward a go-ahead score with less than two minutes to go.
But the 49ers insist they never cracked and never veered from their game plan Sunday.
"Cool, calm and collected," defensive end Justin Smith said.
"We don't fold under pressure," tight end Delanie Walker said.
"It's hard to break us," running back Frank Gore said.
Indeed, for the second straight week, the 49ers showed impressive resilience, climbing out of a 17-point, second-quarter hole the biggest deficit ever in an NFC Championship Game and holding off a final, frantic drive by the Falcons, who had won in dramatic, last-minute fashion the week before.
The 28-24 win sends the 49ers to New Orleans with a chance to tie the Pittsburgh Steelers for an NFL-best six Super Bowl victories and sets up a Harbaugh-brother rematch sure to set the sports world ablaze. Ravens coach John beat little brother Jim 16-6 when their teams met in Baltimore on Thanksgiving last season, a game dubbed the Har-bowl.
"It's all about believing who's on your team," linebacker Aldon Smith said of the win in Atlanta. "If we didn't do that, we could have pushed the panic button. But we believe in each other and know what we're capable of. And we know our goals."
San Francisco had beaten most of the league's top quarterbacks from Aaron Rodgers to Drew Brees to Tom Brady to Rodgers again by flummoxing them early and gaining the lead. Atlanta's Matt Ryan, however, wasn't rattled at home.
Ryan led the Falcons to scores on four of their first five possessions, including a lightning-quick seven-play touchdown drive at the end of the first half. By the end of the half, Ryan had passed for 271 yards, wide receiver Julio Jones had two touchdowns, and the Falcons led 24-14.
The 49ers made minor adjustments, giving their cornerbacks more help on the outside against Jones and his equally physical counterpart, Roddy White. And San Francisco defensive coordinator Vic Fangio decided to mix in a few more blitzes.
But 49ers defensive-backs coach Ed Donatell noted that aside from a broken coverage on Jones' first touchdown, the 49ers' defense had been only a step behind.
Tarell Brown had excellent coverage on Jones' second score. Safety Dashon Goldson had an interception in his grasp before Jones swiped it from him in the first quarter. As a result, there were no dramatic changes at halftime, no slamming of locker doors, no fiery speeches.
"The thing that was most encouraging to me was that everybody stayed calm and poised," Donatell said. "The points started getting up there, but we stayed the course and made minor adjustments."
On offense, meanwhile, the 49ers had watched divisional rival Seattle storm back from an even bigger deficit against Atlanta a week ago, and the players said they knew they would have an opportunity.
They were further encouraged after their first score of the game, an 11-play drive at the start of the second quarter that was capped by rookie LaMichael James' 15-yard touchdown run, the first score of his NFL career.
"Our first touchdown really eliminated the need to get anxious or greedy or get out of our game plan," offensive coordinator Greg Roman said. "We marched it down, got it in. And that was huge. Those first points broke the ice."
Roman said the plan was to "pierce the middle" of Atlanta's defense, something San Francisco and its physical offensive line did with increasing success as the game went on.
Gore, who had 28 yards at halftime, finished with 90 rushing yards. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick made electrifying outside runs against Green Bay in the divisional playoffs, but against the Falcons he opted to hand the ball to Gore on the read-option plays, including on touchdown runs of five and nine yards. The 49ers finished with 149 yards on the ground with James contributing 34 and Kaepernick 21.
Although the 49ers outplayed Atlanta in the second half, Ryan still had a chance for hometown heroics on a final, 14-play drive that included a controversial but upheld 22-yard reception down the sideline to wide receiver Harry Douglas.
Ryan drove the Falcons as far as the 10-yard line. But on third down, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks deciphered the play and swatted away Ryan's pass for the second time in the game. On fourth down, Ryan found White being covered by linebacker NaVorro Bowman, a matchup any quarterback relishes and one the receiver usually wins. Not this time.
"I was ready for it," Bowman said. "Me and Pat (Willis) take a lot of pride in covering fast guys and quick guys. Anytime that happens, we're not nervous. We're just playing our game."