ATLANTA -- Here’s what we know about the 49ers today -- this team sure knows how to rally.
They’re going to the Super Bowl with a former backup quarterback whose strange-but-true legend seems to grow by the minute. They’re going with a coach who’s a little wound-up and also strategically sound. They’re going with a team that fell behind by 17 points on the road in the NFC title game but then dug down deep enough to put the Falcons to rest.
“This team was destined to win,” said Niners tight end Vernon Davis. “I’m not surprised where we are and where we’re going. We all knew we’d end up at this point. This is where we belong.”
Yeah, we all saw this coming. Surely you pictured the 49ers blowing into New Orleans after Jim Harbaugh decided to nudge aside Alex Smith in Week 11 and go with Colin Kaepernick. And after the Niners failed to beat the Rams in two tries. And then after the Falcons racked up all those yards and points in the first half of the NFC title game and turned the noise inside the Georgia Dome to airplane-hanger levels. That’s the normal course taken by teams on the way to a Super Bowl, right? Changing starting quarterbacks and then staging the biggest comeback in NFC Championship Game history?
These are hardly the 49ers of the Bill Walsh era, teams that never left any doubt -- but turns out these Niners are good enough and then some.
After a few anxious moments Sunday, they lived up to Davis’ vision and now can picture themselves restoring the championship glow of a few decades ago, when Walsh and San Francisco not only set the standard, but revolutionized the game. If nothing else, they’ll go into the Super Bowl with the most talked-about quarterback and the most YouTubed coach.
Yes, Harbaugh and Kaepernick, who’ve made each other look brilliant so far, were a sight to behold for different reasons against the Falcons. That temper-tantrum Harbaugh threw after the referees refused to overturn a jiggly, third-down catch by Harry Douglas with four minutes left was pure sideline slapstick. But you could understand why Harbaugh went all third-grade on the play. The Falcons’ drive stayed alive and Harbaugh had to sweat out a fourth-down incompletion at the 10-yard line before he could make reservations for Emeril’s.
“I didn’t see it,” laughed running back Frank Gore about the tirade, “but I sure did hear it.”
And how about Kaepernick? How cool was he after Matt Ryan put the Falcons up 17-0 early in the second quarter? After a handful of initial three-and-outs sent a shiver from here to San Francisco, Kaepernick looked comfortable, calm and totally in control. Basically, he was pretty much the same guy who took over for Smith at midseason and never looked back. This is what Harbaugh saw and why the coach made the gutsiest call of his life to install him as the starter.
“I’m just thankful he made the decision,” Kaepernick said.
So are the Niners, obviously, with maybe one dissenting voice in the locker room (ahem, Mr. Smith). Kaepernick didn’t throw an interception against the Falcons. And if not for a missed field goal and Michael Crabtree being stripped at the goal line, Kaepernick would’ve put 38 points on the board and stabilized Harbaugh’s stress level. All this after a 45-point outburst the week before. In fact, over the last two playoff games, Kaepernick has accounted for almost 700 total yards and maybe only one really ill-advised throw in eight intense quarters.
He’s tall and built like a whip but deceptively strong. He can outrun a bunch of defensive backs. The run-option has turned into a tricky weapon for the Niners only because Kaepernick runs it with near perfection, disguising the handoffs and freezing tacklers in their cleats. His arm is surprisingly strong and accurate; his throws to Davis were money all night. He put together three drives of 78 yards and longer by being smart and aggressive. And Kaepernick still hasn’t made the kind of crushing, costly mistake in this post-season that will get folks wondering if Harbaugh made the right choice.
Well, that’s suddenly a non-issue now, isn’t it? This was not a rock-paper-scissors decision in hindsight. Harbaugh knew what he had, better than anyone else. The coach did make the correct call and Kaepernick, the more you watch, is proving that clearly.
“He just competes like a maniac all the time, in practice and the games,” Harbaugh said. “It’s always the same when I’m looking through the facemask. That’s what I’m seeing.”
He’s one of three quarterbacks to put the Niners in the Super Bowl. The other two are named Montana and Young. Hard to put Kaepernick in such company beyond that, or to say where he’s is headed after two months, but we do know where he’s going to be playing in two weeks.
“He’s a tremendous player with a bright future,” said Davis. “He works harder than anybody. We have a lot of guys like that on this team but Colin Kaepernick stands out because he’s so young and really just getting started. You don’t see many like him.”
After he drove the Niners downfield for the go-ahead points, Kaepernick went to the sideline and where the San Francisco defense was making its final preparations.
Kap: “This is for the Super Bowl. Do what you gotta do to win this.”
Defense: “We got you.”
Too bad for Ryan, who simply couldn’t match his second half with the first. He certainly wasn’t helped when he injured his left shoulder after landing on it late in the fourth quarter, which probably compromised his ability to set up and throw somewhat. But it’s not all on him. The Falcons blew a 20-point lead last week against Seattle and then 17 this week. They were the top-seeded team in the NFC -- yet even the Vegas oddsmakers, who made them a heavy home underdog by 4.5 points, didn’t have much faith.
As they struggle to get anyone to take them seriously, Ryan and the Falcons now have a burden to carry into next season. And making matters worse, Tony Gonzalez probably won’t be around to help carry it, as he reiterated his inclination to retire after the game was over.
Sure, the game was close – and there will be concerns about the Niners’ defense against Baltimore and how they couldn’t put much heat on Ryan or handle his receivers for most of the game. But at least San Francisco gets two weeks to figure it out.
“It doesn’t stop here,” said Gore. “We’ve got more left. A lot more.”
Yes, off to the Super Bowl, where a Harbaugh brother is guaranteed to win, and where Kaepernick has the chance to put a cherry on top of this amazingly unexpected thrill ride he’s on. Don’t expect to hear too much from him during hype week because he’s too soft-spoken and humble for that, and still appears to be in a state of disbelief about the whole thing. As are we all.
Oh, and while we’re on the subject, Super Bowl Media Day will be a blast for Alex Smith. A former starting quarterback, who dressed quickly and quietly in the victorious locker room, must somehow sound thrilled to be in this position, one win away from getting a ring.
If Smith can pull off that acting job, it’ll be the most impressive performance by a San Francisco quarterback this season. And the bar is set pretty high.