What it means: The 49ers are heading to a Super Bowl for the sixth time in franchise history. They will seek their sixth Super Bowl title when they face the winner of the Baltimore-New England game in New Orleans on Feb. 3. Second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick will lead them there, further validating coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to make Kaepernick the starter over Alex Smith.
What I liked: The 49ers' defense recovered from a brutal start to make key second-half plays, none bigger than the fourth-down pass breakup NaVorro Bowman made on a pass to Roddy White with 1:09 remaining. That play turned over possession on downs and allowed the 49ers to run out the clock.
Kaepernick and the offense also recovered from a rough start. The offense reduced a 17-0 deficit to 17-14 late in the first half. Vernon Davis had three catches for 71 yards and a touchdown in the first half as the 49ers fought back. Rookie running back LaMichael James also looked good on a 15-yard option run. The trend continued in the third quarter as the 49ers moved 82 yards in seven plays to set up Frank Gore's 5-yard touchdown run.
The offense did its part, but the 49ers would not have won this game without the defense finally finding its bearings.
Chris Culliver's interception of Ryan with 7:38 left in the third quarter was exactly what the 49ers needed. Atlanta led 24-21 and the teams were trading touchdowns to that point. The 49ers' defense had not made a big play all game.
The 49ers' Aldon Smith, though ineffective as a pass-rusher for most of the game, pounced on the football when Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap. Ryan took his eyes off the ball as the 49ers appeared to show blitz. The recovery by Smith gave the 49ers' defense turnovers on consecutive third-quarter possessions.
Gore's second touchdown, this one a 9-yarder, gave the 49ers their first lead at 28-24 with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter. Fullback Bruce Miller's block was key on the play. The 49ers won at the line of scrimmage on that drive.
What I didn't like: The 49ers took a penalty for delay of game following a timeout as they were trying to run out the clock. That contributed to San Francisco facing a third-and-15 play and having to punt with 13 seconds left. The Falcons had no timeouts at that point, so a comeback victory for Atlanta was not likely. But the lost field position gave the Falcons a better chance.
The 49ers' defense appeared in over its head for much of the game. An early busted coverage allowed Julio Jones to get deep for a 46-yard touchdown, only the third time all season the 49ers have allowed a catch of 40-plus yards. They gave up another big-gainer when free safety Dashon Goldson went for an interception and couldn't quite make the play. San Francisco could not get pressure with four- or even five-man pressures. That was critical.
And when the defense finally produced turnovers on consecutive Atlanta possessions in the second half, the 49ers got no points either time. David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt hit the left upright and bounced backward, falling short. That kept the Falcons in the lead 24-21 and returned possession to them. Receiver Michael Crabtree then lost a fumble at the Atlanta 1-yard line to prevent the 49rs from getting points off the second turnover.
Rookie watch: The 49ers got good contributions from James, their 2012 second-round choice. First-rounder A.J. Jenkins remained in the shadows. The team kept Jenkins on the sideline when it went to its three-receiver offense on a critical third down in the third quarter. Chad Hall, who had not caught a pass in an NFL game since he was with Philadelphia in 2011, was the third receiver on that play.
Crabtree's up-and-down day: Harbaugh made headlines before the season when he said Crabtree had the best hands he'd ever seen. Crabtree lived up to the talk by snatching the ball away from Falcons cornerback Robert McClain, then sprinting away for a 33-yard gain to the Atlanta 10-yard line on the first play of the fourth quarter. Crabtree lost a fumble at the 1 on the next play, however, and the Falcons recovered.
Better returns: The 49ers lost the NFC Championship Game one year ago thanks largely to Kyle Williams' muffed punts in the late going. Ted Ginn Jr. had some shaky moments fielding returns this season, but his 20-yarder early in the fourth quarter set up the San Francisco offense at the Atlanta 38.
Failed challenge: The 49ers failed in challenging Harry Douglas' 22-yard reception with 3:53 remaining. The ruling cost the 49ers field position and their first timeout of the second half while San Francisco was protecting a 28-24 lead.
What's next: The 49ers face Baltimore or New England in the Super Bowl.