There is a legitimate argument that says Atlanta gave the game away through mental errors and ill-advised mistakes as the game wore on. They failed to score a single point in the second half.
Atlanta had become a proven commodity after building up such big leads:
With Falcons up 17-0, they haven't lost a game when leading by at least 17 points in the 1st half since Week 12 of 2003 vs Titans
— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 20, 2013
Unfortunately, San Francisco quickly figured out ways to attack the Falcons defense after the initial surge. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick turned to tight end Vernon Davis to change the game.
Davis had a second-quarter touchdown en route to 106 yards receiving on five catches in the contest. Atlanta's defense seemed to ignore Davis on more than one possession, as he found open routes and holes in the coverage when he leaked out off the line of scrimmage.
However, it was a third-quarter interception by Matt Ryan that truly began to signal a turn for the worse for Mike Smith's squad. Ryan took a simple three-step drop before hurling the pass into the gut of 49ers defensive back Chris Culliver.
It is debatable if Ryan made a poor pass or if receiver Roddy White fell on the play, but the fact remains that Atlanta lost momentum and put the 49ers in the driver's seat with about eight minutes to go in the third.
Similarly, Ryan fumbled away a shotgun snap on Atlanta's next offensive series, very much in field-goal territory for Matt Bryant. While neither of these gaffes led directly to San Francisco points, they slowed the Falcons offense and hindered Atlanta from building a bigger lead.
This is not to say that Ryan did not have an exceptional day. The Falcons signal-caller racked up 396 yards and three touchdowns for a reason, but late mistakes helped lead to a 49ers victory.
And it is not as if San Francisco had a history of second-half heroics:
Prior to today: 49ers were 1-27 in the last 28 games they trailed by at least 17 points in 1st half (dating back to 2001)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 20, 2013
The Niners made their fair of mistakes. Michael Crabtree fumbled away a score at the goal line. David Akers missed a critical field goal. And the offense failed to score after back-to-back Falcons turnovers. Kaepernick was also not exceptional in this contest. He threw for just 233 yards and rushed for 21 more.
Atlanta also won the time of possession battle by over four minutes and committed fewer penalties. The problem was that the Falcons made the mistakes at more critical junctures.
At no point was this more evident than on Atlanta's second-to-last offensive possession. Trailing 28-24 and driving into 49ers territory, Ryan tossed up a third-down pass to a wide open Harry Douglas.
Rather than making the easy reception in stride and streaking for a touchdown, Douglas stumbled and barely hung onto the ball as he fell to the ground.
Whether you agree with the ruling of a catch or not, the fact remains that Douglas' falling on the play likely cost the Falcons points—and maybe even a victory.
So, while the comeback of San Francisco deserves attention and recognition, it is hard not to feel like Atlanta gave away a game in which it should have won.
(ELIAS) 49ers rally from 17 down was 2nd-biggest deficit overcome to win conference championship game (biggest: 18 pts, 2006 Colts vs Pats)— ESPN Stats & Info (@ESPNStatsInfo) January 20, 2013
Now, Jim Harbaugh and the 49ers prepare for a trip to New Orleans. And Atlanta wonders what could have been for another year.