ATLANTA — The thing you notice about the members of the 49ers’ defense — besides the fact that they’re very, very good — is that they play the game very businesslike.
You’ll seldom see them celebrating a big play with the uh, for lack of a better word, gusto, of many of their NFL colleagues. They’re not big on sack dances or cock-a-doodle-doo struts or doing that standing-over-ballcarrier thing that Eagles safety Kurt Coleman is so fond of.
You can thank Jim Harbaugh for that.
“Coach never gets excited,” All-Pro linebacker Patrick Willis said after the Niners’ come-from-behind, 28-24 win over Matt Ryan and the Falcons in the NFC Championship Game on Sunday. “He says just do your job. Do what you’re supposed to do.
“We know that. That’s why we don’t go crazy when we make a play. Because we’re doing our job. Doing what’s expected of us. NaVorro (Bowman) knocking that ball away (from running back) Jacquizz Rodgers in the end zone (in the first quarter)? He does that in practice all the time. That’s what he does. That’s what we do.”
There’s a reason the Niners finished second in the NFL in points allowed and third in total defense this season. It wasn’t particularly evident in the first 15-plus minutes of the game when the Falcons scored on their first three possessions and grabbed a 17-0 lead.
But it was evident when it counted. It was evident in the final two minutes when the Niners needed a stop to earn the franchise’s first Super Bowl trip in 18 years.
The trip to New Orleans will be doubly exciting for Harbaugh. His team will be playing the Baltimore Ravens, who are coached by his brother John. The Ravens defeated the Patriots in the AFC Championship Game later Sunday, setting up an unprecedented game of Super Bowl Family Feud.
After the Niners took the lead for the first time on a nine-yard touchdown run by Frank Gore with 8:23 left in the game, the Falcons, who blew a 20-point lead to the Seahawks last week before winning, almost did it again.
They drove down the field and had a first down at the San Francisco 16 with 2:23 left. But Willis made two nice stops, one on a run by Rodgers and another on a short pass to running back Jason Snelling.
On third-and-4, linebacker Ahmad Brooks batted away a pass intended for wide receiver Roddy White. Then, on fourth down, Bowman clinched the win by knocking away a pass for White over the middle.
White had lined up in the slot and ran a five-yard square-in. Bowman, who played him physically, said he knew Ryan would be throwing to White again.
“He lined up at three (the slot). He hadn’t lined up there the whole game,” Bowman said. “Anytime they do that, that’s what me and (Willis) pride ourselves in doing.
“I just had to step up for my team and make a play. This is the defense you want in those kinds of situations. We don’t care what the situation is, what kind of adversity we’re facing. We’re going to step up to the task. Today was a signature of how we’ve been playing this year.”
The Niners held opponents to 17 points per game this season. Only Seattle allowed fewer (15.3). But on Sunday, they gave up 17 before the game was 16 minutes old.
Ryan completed 10 of 13 passes for 162 yards in the first quarter and 18 of 24 for 271 yards and three touchdowns in the first half.
“It was us,” Bowman said, refusing to give Ryan and the Falcons any credit for their 24-point first half. “It wasn’t them at all. We weren’t communicating. We weren’t playing the way we knew we had to play. We regrouped in the second half and played our game.”
With the help of a couple of turnovers by Ryan — an interception and a fumbled shotgun snap, both in San Francisco territory — the Niners shut the Falcons out in the second half. Atlanta, which had 17 first downs and 297 total yards in the first half, was held to 10 first downs and 180 yards in the second half.
“They did a perfect job in the first half,” said Harbaugh, who was a little more willing than Bowman to give the Falcons credit. “We needed stops. We needed to rush the passer (better), and we did that in the second half. We needed to get our hands on the balls. In the second half, we got those stops. We got the two turnovers and then the stop at the end.”
They also had to score points, and they did that, behind cool and composed second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick and running backs Frank Gore and La Michael James.
In last week’s divisional-round win over the Packers, Kaepernick put up 444 yards in total offense, throwing for 263 yards and two touchdowns and rushing for 181 and two more scores.
The Falcons went into Sunday’s game determined to neutralize Kaepernick as a runner, taking away the outside on the Niners’ read-option plays. Trouble is, that left the inside for Gore and James, who combined for 124 yards and three touchdowns on 26 carries.
Kaepernick only ran the ball twice (for 21 yards) against the Falcons, and one of those was a scramble on a pass play. But he completed 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards, one touchdown and a 127.7 passer rating.
“If not for him, it would’ve been a tough game today,” said Gore, who finished with 90 yards and two TDs on 21 carries. “We were hearing all week long that they were going to key on Colin and stop him from running.
“I told him just be smart and make the right decisions. He said he would, and he did.”
Gore’s game-winning touchdown run came on a read-option. Falcons defensive end John Abraham rushed straight upfield to prevent Kaepernick from getting outside, leaving a huge lane for the running back.
“They were playing the quarterback on a lot of things they were doing,” Kaepernick said. “So Frank was hitting them inside. He ran well today.”
Another guy Kaepernick took advantage of was tight end Vernon Davis. Davis had just 41 catches for 548 yards this season, both his lowest totals since ‘08. Had just one catch last week against the Packers. But with the Falcons focused on wide receiver Michael Crabrtree, Davis got a lot of one-on-one opportunities and Kaepernick threw to him. Davis finished with five catches for 106 yards and a touchdown. He had three receptions of 25-plus yards.
“The tight end was an issue,” Falcons coach Mike Smith said. “They made a number of explosive plays with the tight end.
“When you go into a game and have a game plan in place and you put resources to one area, one of our main goals was to stop the quarterback running the football. We did that, but we did not cover the tight end as well as we needed to.”