Frank Gore suffered through the worst of times with the 49ers, when the team struggled to win four games, when talk of the Super Bowl was more of wistful nostalgia than a realistic possibility.
So on Sunday, with the Niners down big to the Falcons and staring at a loss in the NFC title game for the second consecutive year, Gore decided to speak his mind to his strong-willed coach, Jim Harbaugh.
“I just told him I’m ready,” Gore recalled later with a grin. “He just told me, ‘I see.’ ’’
Gore spearheaded a furious rally, scoring twice in the second half to carry San Francisco past Atlanta 28-24 and into the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years.
Their Super Bowl opponent will be the Baltimore Ravens — coached by Jim Harbaugh’s brother, John — who defeated the New England Patriots 28-13 in the AFC title game.
Gore, the former University of Miami star out of Coral Gables High who rushed for a game-high 90 yards on 21 carries, put the 49ers ahead for good with a 9-yard touchdown run with 8:23 to play.
The Niners defense did the rest and escaped the Georgia Dome with a win in a game in which they were down 17 points early in the second quarter.
“I just wanted it real bad,” Gore said. “We wanted it. It’s been a long time for this team to have success. We know we got here last year and it didn’t happen. We told ourselves, you don’t get these opportunities a lot. You’ve got to do it.”
Mission accomplished. The Gore-led ground attack churned out 149 yards — on 5.1 yards per carry — that gave their wunderkind quarterback some pressure-alleviating balance.
Colin Kaepernick, in just his second season, joined Joe Montana and Steve Young as the only 49ers starting quarterbacks to reach the Super Bowl. Kaepernick played a controlled, clean game, completing 16 of 21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
“He just played great,” Harbaugh said. “I don’t even know the words to say it.
Not so, however, for those down the hall. In the Falcons locker room, the depth of their collapse was just beginning to sink in. Only once in conference championship history had a team blown a lead that large (the Patriots coughed up an 18-point advantage six years ago).
For those who enjoy bludgeoning Matt Ryan and Mike Smith, Sunday gave them a potent stick.
Ryan built the 17-0 lead with two touchdown passes to Julio Jones. In all, he went 30 of 42 for 396 yards and three scores, while Jones broke a franchise playoff record with 182 receiving yards on 11 catches.
But Ryan, who battled an apparent left arm injury late, also turned the ball over on two possessions in a row — the first an interception where intended receiver Roddy White fell down, and the second a fumble on a perfect snap.
And with a chance to play hero late, he failed. Down four points with less than two minutes left, the Falcons had the ball at the San Francisco 10. A touchdown might have won it.
On fourth-and-4, Ryan looked for Roddy White across the middle.
San Francisco linebacker NaVorro Bowman was in White’s hip pocket, and he appeared to make contact with the receiver before the ball arrived. But no flag was thrown, and the pass fell incomplete.
The Falcons would get the ball back with just seconds left on the clock, but there was only time for a futile, last-gasp heave that went for naught.
“To win in the playoffs, you have to make those kinds of plays on those kinds of drives,” Ryan said. “We didn’t make them.”
Added Falcons coach Mike Smith: “It was tough for everybody. Tough for our guys when there is finality with our season. We will bounce back. We just don’t feel real good right now.”
But the Niners?
Dancing in the locker room and, for team CEO Jed York, tears of joy. York choked up as he recalled holding his son when the odds looked bleakest Sunday. The tighter he squeezed, it seemed, the better his team played.
He should save a few hugs for Gore, one of several key figures who over the past two years have transformed the Niners from a laughingstock into a juggernaut.
“When we got in the locker room [down 24-14], we looked at each other,” Gore said. “Coach Harbaugh brought us up.
“He told us, ‘Hey, we got here. We want to go home with it. To get where we want to go, the offense has to go out, strike real fast and the defense needs to make plays.’ That’s what we did.”