Sunday's come from-behind-win had some players dancing wildly in the middle of the locker room and left others quietly wrestling with their emotions in front of their lockers.
Jed York, the young owner whose tenure has corresponded with the team's turnaround, discreetly walked through the room, shaking hands along the way. Asked how he handled the tug and pull of a game that saw Atlanta jump out to a 17-0 start, York's eyes filled.
"Down 17-0, my son was with me. Picked him up," he said, his voice trailing off for a few seconds. ". .... held him for our first touchdown, and I knew we were going to win."
"That's what it's about," York continued. "It's about family, and I think of this as a family."
That was the mantra of the team's former owner, and York's uncle, Eddie DeBartolo, with whom York is close. San Francisco's trip to New Orleans is the franchise's first Super Bowl berth since DeBartolo relinquished control of the team to his sister, Denise DeBartolo-York, and her husband, John York. DeBartolo Jr, of course, won five Super Bowls with the 49ers, and he's currently a finalist for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
Players who had been in the league the longest seemed to have the hardest time reconciling what had happened on the Georgia Done field. Frank Gore, who arrived in 2005 and had played on non-winning teams until 2010, had to cut off his interview. "I'm done," he said to a half dozen camera spread around him. Still in uniform even though the game handed ended an hour earlier, Gore stared straight ahead for several more minutes.
Justin Smith also was part of those bad 49ers squads as well as a 2-12 in Cincinnati team after he first joined the league. Smith has been one of the emotional tone setters for the team. On Sunday he was struggling between celebrating a trip to the Super Bowl and reminding himself there's still work to be done.
"Definitely toward the end of the my career, getting a win like this," Smith said. " It's an awesome feeling. ... It's unbelievable. You've got to win it, or else it's all for nothing. So the pressure's really on us."
- Matt Barrows