This just couldn't happen. No, not again.
Even when the Niners were getting certifiably torched during that nightmarish first-quarter—184 yards to minus-2—we didn't panic. Okay, maybe there was one quick thought, that WWL was bigger than any of us. But two things were obvious: the Niners would play better, while the Falcons couldn't.
Once the lead was 17, though, a crossroads appeared. These guys are pros, so of course you knew they wouldn't just quit. But they're also human, and they had to see the sheer enormity of what they were facing. They were on the road, with all that noise, and their chance of a comeback, the stat-heads said, stood at a dismal 6%. Against such odds, pros or no, they had to think maybe this wasn't their day.
Yet two things stood in the Niners' favor. The first, ironically, was last year's heartbreak. Heartbreak, you see, isn't always so bad. Oh, sure, going through it is awful. But it's just a part of life, of course. You can't escape it, no matter what. The question, then, is how you respond. Do you let it beat you down? Or do you use it to lift yourself up?
In 1984, the Niners thoroughly dominated the league, going 15-and-1 and then annihilating Miami in Super Bowl XIX. Asked what had produced such an inspired campaign, Bill Walsh didn't rely on the usual cliches about teamwork, dedication, and mutual sacrifice. Instead, he said, it had sprung from heartbreak—the controversial loss in the NFC title game the year before. So it wasn't so much the desire to achieve the thrill of victory; it was more the desire to avoid that terrible agony of defeat. If they hadn't suffered the one, they might not have gone on to achieve the other.
In the week leading up to Atlanta, Donte Whitner revealed that last year the Niners "didn't understand the magnitude of the moment." Don't take his point too literally; of course they knew they were playing for the Super Bowl. But what Whitner meant was they didn't understand how tough it is. Winning came so easily, they seemed destined to win all the way to the end. But they learned, the hard way. When it's a title game, destiny won't give it to you; you've gotta take it.
Make no mistake: on Sunday this was brought to bear. If they'd won last year, maybe they'd say this just wasn't their day. But to lose this game for the second straight year? Absolutely unacceptable. When everything seemed to be pushing them down, last year's heartbreak stirred them back up.
So that was the Niners' first advantage.
I'll give you three guesses for who was their second.
Though the Packers game was Colin Kaepernick's national coming-out party—"O.K., now we get it," Sports Illustrated declared—that game showed off only his physical skills. Oh, no question, those skills are prodigious, and perhaps unprecedented. But to those of us who'd been watching him closely, he'd been much more than a physical freak. In equal measure, he'd demonstrated that additional quality, which combines with physical skills to make greatness.
He'd shown an utter indifference to fear.
So, down 17-zip, what was he thinking? "We have to score." Yeah, but didn't he feel the crushing pressure? No, see, "going out on the field frantic isn't going to help you score." Okay, but seriously, he wasn't worried about the hole we'd dug? "You can't worry about things like that. It's over, it's done with. You have to move forward."
And there you have it. The difference between a great athlete—even one making only his ninth NFL start—and the rest of us, the great unwashed. The rest of us consume ourselves with chances missed, opportunities lost. The rest of us stress out, freeze up, and choke—crushed beneath the magnitude of the moment.
But Kaepernick? He just moves forward.
And so, on Sunday, that's what he did. With Atlanta selling out to take away his lethal legs, he wisely left the running to the running backs, and dissected the Falcons with his equally lethal arm. Of his six remaining meaningful drives, four produced touchdowns; the others ended with a face-palming Michael Crabtree fumble, inside the one, and what's gotta be David Akers' last field-goal attempt from anything more than 30 yards out. (Really, Coach, there's no one better?) With our defense having come mostly to life—and, to be fair, with some lucky takeaways—we were tenuously up, 28-24.
And thus began seven minutes of torture.
The Falcons had pulled game after game out of their collective asses, most notably the week before, when they'd graciously spared us a Seattle rubber-match. They didn't seem likely to do it to us, but that's just what the Seahawks had thought. And as they nickeled-and-dimed down the field—the lone big-play being an utterly mystifying quasi-catch—we couldn't help but face the truth: there's a very good chance we'll lose this game.
And wouldn't that be just the way. Our O finally gets to a Super Bowl level, just so our D can go into the tank. We fuel ourselves with last year's heartbreak, just to give ourselves one even worse. We can credibly rationalize all of our previous playoff defeats—trust me, I've spent years doing it—but there wouldn't be any excuse for this. And as the Falcons moved all the way to the 10, the dread was almost debilitating.
But this is a proud, proud D, which simply refused to play the weak link. Ahmad Brooks put a hurt on Matt Ryan, NaVorro Bowman foiled fourth-down, and by precisely that much, the Niners escaped.
The sheer relief was overwhelming. I dropped to the floor, leaking tears, gasping for breath. And as I lay there, it all dissolved, 18 years of mostly pain. Adam Walker's cast. Brett Favre. William Fuller's helmet. Brett Favre. Warren Sapp's destruction. Brett Favre. The Georgia Dome turf. Aeneas Williams. Steve Stenstrom. John York. Monty Montgomery. Terry Donahue. Brett Favre. Mike Rumph. The Tampa first-half clock. Dennis Erickson. Kwame Harris. Jeff Garcia's bulging disc. Rashaun Woods. Tim Rattay. Ken Dorsey. Mike Nolan. Jim Hostler. Rocky Bernard. J.T. O'Sullivan. "I Want Winners." Jimmy Raye. Brett Favre. "Dad-gum Yahoo commercial." "We want Carr." And Kyle Williams, parts one and two....
For me, this crazy ride began way back in 1981, when a genius coach and an upstart QB came out of nowhere to go to the Super Bowl. "Superdreams," as Time declared. And now, after three decades where it seemed our glory would never end and then never return, a genius coach and an upstart QB are taking us back.
Just dream it again, and dare to believe it.
At long last, the Niners are back.
By Jeff Kaplan
By: GrizzlyAdamsDate: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 9:53 PMComment: Well said!
By: Eamon MurphyDate: Sunday, January 27, 2013 at 6:04 PMComment: Great article Jeff. Spoken like a local Sunset boy. Go Niners! Irish Murph
By: Joe PlacidiDate: Friday, January 25, 2013 at 9:22 AMComment: Couldn't have said it better myself, Jeff. You just forgot Cody Pickett.
By: BretDate: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 10:54 PMComment: Truly spoken and appreciate the humor during those tough years! I grew up in Antioch and became a loud fanatic of our storied franchise when Steve Young was signed. I just want to say that I am honored to feel a part of and to pay attention to and read all of the inspirational stories that seem to gravitate towards the red and gold! And I knew what we were getting in harbaugh last year and also know he will be a niner for life. Justin Smith, thank you for being the great humble leader that you are! (one more year!!) In harbaugh I trust, Jim you have wonderful parents who obviously went the extra mile, Patrick Willis... thank you for staying, I was worried for a moment there that u would leave for a contender, but that's before I got to know the real you. Really, do I even need to say anything about Frank, the quickest 90-degree turning tank that I've ever seen. Frank, sincerely thank you for allowing us to see the child in you, after the game and during postgame comments. Staley's bloody nose and moonlighting as a comedian. Makers we love you man, don't think anymore. Uve done this your whole life... let it go... go with ur gut and let it fly! Moss glad u like the food!
By: JeremyDate: Thursday, January 24, 2013 at 8:17 AMComment: Nicely done, but you should have added "Mike Singletary's Ass Crack" to that list.
By: eliobleedsred&goldDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 8:28 PMComment: Great piece. I was emotionally exhausted after the come from behind win in ATL & it all came out as tears of joy. Still riding this high. Gonna be a long week & a half. Only thing that concerns me about facing the ravens in the super bowl is our secondary. I hope they can get it together for all four quarters. But I know kaep is going 2 have a great game for sure. He's going to keep that ravens d on their toes all game. I was confident in the team against the packers. I had more confidence in them against the falcons. They will come out on top in super bowl XLVII and bring home that 6th ring. DIE HARD NINER FAN TIL' THE DAY I DIE! GO NINERS!
By: Lucky PhilDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 6:13 PMComment: That package joke reminds me of a story from many years ago. My boss came back from a two week vacation to Hawaii wearing a tribal necklace made from large wood beads. So on his first day back from his trip, I walk up to him in the lobby and say to him "You have big balls!" Very long pause...And he asks me "What did you say?" I said "You have large balls!" Another long pause..."What do you mean?" I point at my chest, "You are wearing a lot of big balls, today". He looks quickly down at his necklace and says nervously "No one has told me that before". Quickly I said "I'm sorry to hear that" and went back to my desk. Best six months of my life were at that company.
By: Lucky PhilDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 5:51 PMComment: You have a nice package...Of work. But this was one of my favorites. Had a good laugh! GO NINERS!
By: ShaneDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 4:27 PMComment: This is absolutely incredible!! since the time I discovered this website I didn't know if I would ever see a playoff game again (Im only 29) I was rollin with Nolan, thought Sing was the answer. I jumped on every bandwagon that drove by, cuz frankly Im a fan and I want reason to believe until proven otherwise (Thanks to the Mikes for providing those) Now here we are and the best part is we have the best front office in football. Somehow we have a large majority of our young core locked up and have a young QB that finally is "the next in line," its beautiful.... my major concern going into the SB is prolly the same as everyone else's, we are playing against a team where FGs are going to be key. Jeff, if we lose this game due to missed FGs I will not at all be surprised but still painfully heartbroken. So lets enjoy this 2 weeks no matter what!
By: bellevuemikeDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 4:12 PMComment: If they can run the ball with Gore, not 2, 1, 1, 0, 10 yards a clip but 5, 6, 4, 6....like in the first Seattle game (and haven't seen since), and get a push from the front into Flacco's face....like in the Saints game (and haven't seen since), they'll win in a romp. If they get either, they'll win. If they get neither, they'll lose.
By: SteveDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 4:07 PMComment: Great Article.
By: FrankDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 12:13 PMComment: That was an awesome piece.
By: 49erLegacyDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 4:54 AMComment: Outstanding piece!!!
By: AlanDate: Wednesday, January 23, 2013 at 3:49 AMComment: Thanks for so marvelously crystallizing into words the rollercoaster ride we've been on the past 31 years (and last Sunday). I live in Houston. The Texans are choke artists. All the talent but not the heart. Heart is what won the game in ATL. That is more satisfying than a game won with talent. Go Niners!
By: SCDate: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 10:22 PMComment: That was great! Loved the List of Adam Walkers. I'd add, it's not only been a wait for the Super Bowl, but it's been a long wait for a Quarterback. We've finally got a guy under center who you want to go into a Super Bowl with. The 49er dynasty was built on great QB play more than anything else, and now we finally have a guy who just leaves the opposing teams stunned as to what just happened.
By: BillDate: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 3:53 PMComment: Hope you enjoyed the first two playoff games, because you won't enjoy the Super Bowl. This one is going to be blowout city. The Niners are going to thrash the Ravens from the opening whistle. This will be a lot like the the blowout win over Denver. Nobody remembers that Super Bowl because it wasn't really competitive. This will be really similar.
By: RyanDate: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 1:37 PMComment: EPIC.
By: GonzolaDate: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 1:27 PMComment: Nice piece. I however had relatively no doubt. I was confident at the half that things would change. The defense did ZERO the whole first half, so after halftime I was pretty confident the defense would come out swinging and they did. In order to win the superbowl the defense is going to have to play all 4 quarters AND the offense has to stop making stupid mistakes (i.e. crabtree greedy fumble at the 1yd line). The NFL wants to give the SB win to the Ravens and I am not sure if the niners can defeat the league's wishes. I pray that they go out of their way to DESTROY the Ravens. 6-0 baby - Go NINERS. And I agree, playing the Falcons is like playing a crappy AFC team - they were horrible; our inconsistent play and horrible play calling let them score.
By: MonsterninerDate: Tuesday, January 22, 2013 at 12:46 PMComment: Well Jeff, outstanding writing as usual and let me tell you that I am in the same ship that you are. I'm a Niner fan since I was 5 and now I'm 34 and just like you, I was waiting for this moment for 18 years. 18 freaking years!! And now the moment is here in front of us. Of course, I was crying after the game was over and now, 2 days after that, I still shake when I watch replays of the game and I can tell you that no matter the awful years, I always was proud of being a Niner and now I am prouder than ever. Go Niners!!!