ATLANTA - Their fans may have been pulling out their hair when the 49ers fell behind by 17 points and losing bucketfuls of sweat as the Falcons drove toward a go-ahead score with two minutes to go.
But the 49ers insist they never cracked and never veered from their game plan.
"Cool, calm and collected," said defensive end Justin Smith.
"We don't fold under pressure," said tight end Delanie Walker.
"It's hard to break us," said running back Frank Gore.
Indeed, for the second straight week the 49ers showed impressive resilience and bounce-back ability, coming back from a 17-point, second-quarter hole - the biggest deficit ever in the NFC Championship game - and then staving off a final, frantic drive by a Falcons team that 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. It's the 49ers' first trip to the Super Bowl since 1995.
"It's all about believing who's on your team," linebacker Aldon Smith said. "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 Rodgers again - by flummoxing them early and gaining the lead. Atlanta's Matt Ryan, however, wasn't rattled at home.
Instead he 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 half. When they went into the locker room, Ryan had 271 yards, receiver Julio Jones had two touchdowns and the Falcons were ahead by 10 points.
The 49ers made minor adjustments, giving their cornerbacks more help on the outside against Jones and his equally physical counterpart, Roddy White. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio also decided to mix in a few more blitzes from that point forth.
But defensive backs coach Ed Donatell noted that aside from a broken coverage on Jones' first touchdown, the 49ers defense had only been a step behind. Tarell Brown had excellent coverage on Jones' second score. Safety Dashon Goldson had an interception in his grasp before Julio Jones swiped it from him in the first quarter. As a result, there were no dramatic changes at halftime, no slamming of locker doors or 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 a 15-yard touchdown run by rookie LaMichael James, the first of his NFL career.
"I thought 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 the half, finished with 90 rushing yards on the afternoon. Whereas quarterback Colin Kaepernick made waves with his electrifying outside runs against Green Bay in the divisional playoffs, against the Falcons he opted to hand the ball to Gore inside on the read-option plays, including on Gore's touchdown runs from five and nine yards The 49ers finished with 149 yards on the ground with James contributing 34 and Kaepernick chipping in 21.
Despite outplaying Atlanta in the second half, Ryan still had a chance for hometown heroics on a final, 11-play drive that included a controversial - but upheld - 22-yard reception down the sideline to receiver Harry Douglas.
The Falcons quarterback drove his team as far as the 10-yard line. But on third down, outside linebacker Ahmad Brooks deciphered the play and swatted away Ryan's pass, his second batted pass of 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. Any time that happens. We're not nervous. We're just playing our game."
-- Matt Barrows