By PAUL NEWBERRY, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — The loss stuck with them for a year, pushing the San Francisco 49ers in everything they did.
They didn't want to feel that way again.
Not to worry.
The 49ers are headed to the Super Bowl.
Bouncing back from a bitter loss in the 2012 NFC championship game, San Francisco cleared the hurdle it couldn't quite get over the previous season. And, boy, did the 49ers earn it, rallying from an early 17-0 deficit to beat the Atlanta Falcons 28-24 on Sunday.
"We worked so hard," said Frank Gore, who ran for a pair of touchdowns, including the go-ahead score with 8:23 remaining. "We knew that we got here last year and it didn't happen. But we got back and we said to ourselves, as a team, that this time we've got to walk through the door. You really don't get opportunities like this."
The 49ers used to get them all the time, winning five Super Bowl titles in the 1980s and '90s. Now, with a clutch quarterback (Colin Kaepernick), a budding genius of a coach (Jim Harbaugh) and a big-play defense, they're ready to start a new dynasty.
They were one win away from playing for it all last season, until a fumbled return in the NFC championship game led to the winning field goal in overtime for the eventual Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
When the Falcons raced to their big lead by the first play of the second quarter, San Francisco (13-4-1) appeared headed for more disappointment.
But no one lost faith, and the 49ers pulled off the biggest comeback victory ever in an NFC championship game, according to STATS.
The previous record was 13 points — Atlanta's victory over Minnesota in the 1999 title game, which sent the Falcons to what remains the only Super Bowl appearance in franchise history. The AFC championship game record is 18 points, when Indianapolis rallied past New England in 2007.
"I don't really think it's destiny or anything like that written on the walls," 49ers defensive tackle Justin Smith said. "It's the team that works the hardest, prepares the hardest, and has the best players and coaching staff. You pour all that in together and it comes out pretty good at the end."
The 49ers advanced to face Baltimore at New Orleans in two weeks, looking to join Pittsburgh as the only franchises with six Super Bowl titles. It'll be a brother-vs.-brother matchup, too; John Harbaugh coaches the Ravens.
But Jim Harbaugh wasn't concerned about a family reunion.
He was hoppin' mad when a disputed call went against the 49ers on Atlanta's potential winning drive in the closing minutes. Harbaugh leaped in the air, screamed at the officials and had to be restrained by his staff from charging the field.
But the 49ers stopped Atlanta on a fourth-down play at their own 10, as linebacker NaVorro Bowman reached in to swat the ball away from Roddy White on a pass across the middle with 1:09 remaining.
San Francisco ran off all but the final 6 seconds, not nearly enough time for Matt Ryan to pull out another improbable comeback.
The previous week, Atlanta (14-4) squandered a 20-point lead in the fourth quarter against the Seattle Seahawks, nearly becoming the first team to lose with such a daunting advantage in the final period of a playoff game. But Ryan completed two long passes in the final 30 seconds, and Matt Bryant kicked a 49-yard field goal for a 30-28 victory.
After Gore's second TD gave San Francisco its first lead of the day, the Falcons took the ensuing kickoff and used up nearly all the clock while going 70 yards. They might have reclaimed the lead if Harry Douglas had been able to stay on his feet while hauling in a 22-yard pass.
The defender slipped, leaving Douglas all alone down the sideline. But he tripped, too, doing well to make the catch without the ball hitting the turf. Harbaugh thought it did, challenging the call, but the referee ruled it a catch after looking at the replay.
That's when Harbaugh nearly lost it.
It all worked out, though.
"We rose up there at the end," Harbaugh said. "It was a great finish for our defense, an exclamation point on the game."