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.