ATLANTA What on earth was Colin Kaepernick thinking? Seriously. What was he thinking? In the biggest game of his life the biggest game played here since the Braves won the 1995 World Series the 49ers quarterback directed the comeback that trumps all NFC Championship Game comebacks.
Down 17-0 early, down 24-14 at halftime, but down in the dumps? Man, not this kid.
The 49ers are going to the Super Bowl for reasons large and small. The defense pressured and stiffened. Vernon Davis reappeared. Frank Gore was Frank Gore, steady and explosive. Jim Harbaugh threw a sideline tantrum for the ages, yet quietly and effectively countered most of Mike Nolan's defensive schemes.
But this 28-24 victory occurred only because Kaepernick is skilled and mature beyond his 25 years. He was instinctive, creative, thoughtful. He didn't merely throw the ball; he completed all sorts of passes. He scrambled when necessary (twice), if only for 21 yards. And he was cooler even than his counterpart, the Falcons quarterback who has been known as "Matty Ice" since college.
Normally, Matt Ryan is the one dropping back in the pocket and rallying his team. He has directed 10 fourth-quarter or overtime victories in the Georgia Dome since being drafted out of Boston College in 2008.
Sunday's game started differently with Ryan on target early, shredding the 49ers for 271 yards in a remarkable, almost unfathomable first half.
But there's that little matter of the final score, and Kaepernick choreographed two monumental, absolutely crucial second-quarter drives to keep the 49ers in the game.
"Played great," praised Harbaugh. "I don't even know the words to say it. It's always the same when I'm looking in through the face mask. He competes like a maniac."
Though not nearly as demonstrative as his coach, Kaepernick in many respects is like a son of Harbaugh: tenacious, relentless, defiant, diligent.
His teammates say he's the first player to arrive for practice and the last to leave. He is both athletic and bookish the play cheat sheet remained on his arm throughout his postgame interviews but perhaps most surprising for someone so young, he leads and his teammates follow.
He leads men who are older and presumably wiser, some who were openly skeptical when he supplanted veteran Alex Smith. Only a year ago, remember, it was Smith who guided these same 49ers within two Kyle Williams fumbles of the Super Bowl.
But Kaepernick not only possesses that intangible quality that inexplicable "something special" that distinguishes great players from good players he brings the goods. He runs, he passes, he improvises, he thinks. At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, he moves with the speed and grace of a colt and increasingly makes decisions with the poise and savvy of a more seasoned pro.
Asked his mindset when his team trailed 17-0 and 70,000 fans were screaming into his headset, Kaepernick said simply, "We have to score. You can't let a team like this get any more than that. (And) going out on the field frantic isn't going to help you score points."
If he doesn't engineer the 80-yard drive that ended with LaMichael James sprinting into the end zone? If he doesn't catch the Falcons snoozing, capitalize on a roughing-the-passer penalty and find Davis for 25 yards on the ensuing possession? If he doesn't roll to his right and float a textbook touch pass to Davis to bring the 49ers within a field goal?
If his nerves fail and he falters at all in that second quarter, the 49ers can pack up and go home.
There would be other moments, other significant plays, among them an 82-yard scoring march to open the third quarter and a go-ahead, quick-hit response after Michael Crabtree's near-disastrous goal-line fumble. Crafty fakes and handoffs to his backs. Timely passes over the middle and down the sidelines to his receivers. Audibles and quick decisions to counter the relentless noise.
But to produce in that second quarter? In this setting and under these circumstances? To complete 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards, take what the defense offered, neither throw an interception nor commit a fumble?
"Colin is the man," understated Davis, shaking his head, summing up the sentiments in his locker room.
Again and again, as he has done since being named the starter, Kaepernick made the plays, led the 49ers where they want to go. Into the end zone. Into the postseason. And now, into the Super Bowl.