ATLANTA -- Greg Roman, the first known young Carroll O’Connor impersonator ever to reach the Super Bowl, knew the moment when the 49ers were going to survive the Atlanta Falcons, and typically, it came as soon as the Falcons were at their most dominant point.
“As soon as they got to 17-0,” the 49ers’ about-to-be-much-heralded offensive coordinator said. “I knew we didn’t have to panic or worry, as long as we could go down score on the next possession.”
And when they did, when LaMichael James snapped off his 15-yard run to finish an 11-play, 80-yard drive, Roman relaxed. The 49ers didn’t have the Falcons right where they wanted them, but they were close enough.
It was the moment when the 49ers fully engaged a game that Atlanta dominated early through wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, and tight end Tony Gonzalez. It was the moment when normalcy was restored, and the foundation of their 28-24 win in the NFC Championship Game was settled.
[MAIOCCO'S INSTANT REPLAY: 49ers 28, Falcons 24]
Only the foundation, mind you. The game twisted and turned mightily on a series of big strikes and mistakes by the Falcons, but the 49ers were able through all of them to find their normal pace, and positioned themselves for Frank Gore’s winning touchdown run.
But none of that would have been conceivable unless the first 49er drive of the second quarter reminded them all, especially quarterback Colin Kaepernick, just how gratifying normalcy can be.
“The first touchdown was really huge, because it meant we didn’t have to panic or start changing things or going away from the plan,” Roman said. “Those were big.”
Not just big, though. Historically big, for a team that once made history part of their routine. The 49ers are going to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years, and while you may pretend it is part of the team’s glorious continuum, it most certainly is not.
It isn’t even that close to what they typically did this season. Their defense was bent by a one-dimensional offense. They got almost all their passing attack through tight end Vernon Davis, rather than Michael Crabtree. And Gore had a typical rather than extraordinary day.
Typical, as in 90 yards on 17 carries and two touchdowns. Long gain of 11. In “Vintage Frank Gore,” Roman said.
[RELATED: For Gore, Super Bowl is that much sweeter]
But as a historical artifact that links this team to the ‘80s and ‘90s, there is none. Eddie DeBartolo is now a well-credentialed visitor who gets to be on the sideline and say things like, ”This is a warm-up game.” The coaching staff has been turned over four times, the roster twice as often. If there is anyone still in the building from the good old days . . . well, never mind that. The building is being made obsolete.
These are not your father’s 49ers, in short. But they are going to do their best to make you think otherwise.
“To be honest with you, I knew when I got here, we had some players,” Gore said, looking back at the rank old days. “We had guys who could perform, you know? We just got some leadership to guide us, and make things happen.”
Gore was one of those players who seemingly got lost in all the Kaepernick-for-Galactic-High-Sheriff talk. So was Davis, who had had one noticeable game since Kaepernick was granted the quarterback’s job in Week 11. Indeed, what he had Sunday was a big half; he caught only one of his five passes after Atlanta’s adjustments were installed.
But he, like Gore and James and Kaepernick and Randy Moss, were all there when the game turned in their minds, when the Falcons were on the verge of running the table.
Gore ran the ball on the first four plays of the drive, gaining 20 yards to move the markers twice but more to eliminate the possibility that Kaepernick might entertain thoughts of going all DIY on everyone.
The 49ers did not run the ball again until James’ scoring burst, but Kaepernick found Moss, then Crabtree twice, then James, then Davis to move the ball from the San Francisco 40 to the Atlanta 15. And given that the Falcons had blurted a 20-point lead before beating Seattle in the divisional game here, doubt and hope rejoined under the Dome. Doubt for the Falcons, hope for the visitors.
Perhaps this ends up as a dry hole, story-line-wise, if quarterback Matt Ryan doesn’t throw an interception in the third quarter when Roddy White slips on a route he’d been running happily all day long. Maybe the Falcons are making the big plans if Ryan doesn’t fumble at the 49er 28 on the next drive.
Then again, maybe it changes if David Akers’ uprighted 38-yard field goal ends up being the point differential, or if Crabtree getting stripped at the Atlanta 1-yard line results in one more Falcon score.
The central point, however, remains that the 49ers ended up playing their game for longer, better and later than the Falcons. Atlanta owned the skies in the first half, but only gained 125 yards through the air after the break. Atlanta’s best running back, Michael Turner, was injured and didn’t play the last 22 minutes. Ryan hurt his shoulder late, and the defense did as Roman has predicted, wearing down not through Kaepernick’s running around the end but by Gore and James between the tackles.
And in a tribute to why the 49ers really are going to New Orleans, Atlanta’s last three plays were a pass defensed by Ahmad Brooks, a pass defensed by NaVorro Bowman, and a meaningless completion to White that cornerback Perrish Cox sealed with a safe and solid tackle. The 49ers got to be normal because the defense allowed only one touchdown in the final 44:54.
And now they get to be Super Bowl participants for the first time in . . . well, for purposes of explaining this team, for the first time in forever. You can make history dance whatever tune you wish, but this is contemporary stuff. These are the new 49ers, new and very much improved.