ATLANTA -- With a ticket punched to Super Bowl XLVII, 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and defensive tackle Justin Smith embraced.
The new leader of the team's offense and the old sage on defense shared a congratulatory moment in the immediate aftermath of the 49ers' thrilling 28-24 come-from-behind victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the NFC Championship Game.
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Kaepernick made all of the right decisions on Sunday for an offense that overcame a 17-point deficit early in the second quarter.
Smith gave the 49ers an emotional lift in the playoffs with his return from a partially torn left triceps tendon.
So the young and the old -- two understated, hard-working players who symbolize the 49ers as well as anyone -- knew they probably would not have been able to advance to the NFL title game without each other. The 49ers will face the Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, Feb. 3 in New Orleans.
"He doesn't flinch," Smith said of Kaepernick. "He doesn't flinch. Those are the types of guys in this league, you plug them in and they don't flinch. They're bred that way. It's in their DNA. That's the type of guy he is. Tough, competitive, physical guy."
Smith was one of the first players Kaepernick met after being invited to participate in daily workouts at San Jose State during the lockout of 2011. The 49ers traded up to select Kaepernick in the second round of the draft. And because of the labor dispute, he could not communicate with coaches and 49ers staff members. Instead, he eagerly joined workouts with his new teammates. Justin Smith was a regular during those sessions.
"He was one of the first people I met coming here during the lockout," Kaepernick said. "He's always been a great guy to me. He's always been a hard-worker. I've always admired the way he works. He's one of the leaders on this team and he deserves this."
Smith spent most of his first 10 NFL seasons in relative obscurity. Throughout his first decade in the NFL, Smith played in just one playoff game -- a loss while with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2005.
Now, he and most of his teammates are heading to their first Super Bowl. Jonathan Goodwin is the only player on the 49ers with a Super Bowl ring. Randy Moss, Clark Haggans and David Akers have played on Super Bowl-losing teams.
"I don't know how to explain it right now," Smith said. "We have one game left. It's all for naught if we don't take care of the next one. Whoever we're playing is going to be tough. I think we're prepared. This definitely isn't what we came to accomplish."
The 49ers made it to the NFC Championship Game last year, but lost 20-17 to the eventual Super Bowl-champion New York Giants in overtime. That defeat, in many ways, began a path that led beyond the NFC title game this season.
"We were so pumped the prior year when we beat the Saints, we didn't know what to do with ourselves," Smith said.
Smith said after the 49ers' divisional-round victory over the Green Bay Packers, the 49ers did not celebrate. Instead, Smith said, the mentality was, "On to the next one."
"It's got that feel here, too," Smith said. "Great, NFC Champs. Awesome accomplishment. Let's go win the Super Bowl."
Team CEO Jed York said the appearance in the NFC Championship Game last season, in coach Jim Harbaugh's first year, might have come before the 49ers' time had arrived.
"It was a young team, got together quickly after the lockout," York said. "They probably didn't deserve to be 13-3, probably didn't deserve to host an NFC Championship Game, just because of the youth and inexperience. And it just kind of happened so quick.
"If you look at Bill Walsh, he hosted an NFC Championship Game in his third season. They were together for a while. The moment might have been too big for us last year."
But the moment was not too big for Kaepernick, who was making just his eighth career start on Sunday. After the 49ers scored the go-ahead points on Frank Gore's 9-yard touchdown run with 8:23 remaining, the attention shifted to the defense.
The Falcons moved the San Francisco 22-yard line. During a replay challenge, in which coach Jim Harbaugh disputed a 22-yard catch along the 49ers' sideline, Kaepernick spoke to the defense. He said he was confident the defense would get the job done.
"I have great confidence in our defense," he said. "I went out and talked to them and I said, 'This is for the Super Bowl right here.' And they said, 'We got you.' I take a man at his word."