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COHN: 49ers, Gore show championship mettle


ATLANTA -- The 49ers are going to the Super Bowl.

Savor that thought. Not long ago, the 49ers were a joke, a poorly managed outfit that accomplished nothing and had zero standing in the NFL. This went on for years.

On Sunday in the loud Georgia Dome, noise bouncing off the artificial turf and the stands and the steel girders — it was the sound of going insane — the Niners beat the Atlanta Falcons, a good team playing at home. The 49ers took the next step — more like a leap — to a business trip in New Orleans against the Baltimore Ravens, where their ultimate dream just may come true.

What they did against the Falcons, coming from behind to win 28-24, was among the greatest performances by any team I ever covered in any sport at any time. That's how inevitable the Niners were. Yes, inevitable. Even when they were behind, even when they seemed out of hope and ideas and resources, the feeling persisted that they would come back, that Atlanta could not hold them down. Nobody could hold them down.

There is something about the Niners — call it their X quality — that insists on winning, that will take your best shot and feel invigorated, will get off the floor and overtake you and laugh doing it, and then knock you out.

That is exactly what the 49ers did to the Atlanta Falcons who, with all due respect, are classic front runners. They do well when everything is going well for them. But in football — this is how it replicates life — nothing always goes well. There are disturbances. The Niners were a disturbance.

When the Niners started to disturb, the Falcons must have felt their lips turn dry, must have experienced the hollowness in the stomach. The Niners' coming back to beat the Falcons was as inevitable as Greek tragedy. And you knew they would win even though they right away fell behind 17-0, even though David Akers, as usual, missed a cinch field goal, even though Michael Crabtree, of all people, lost a fumble at the goal line, even though the Niners' corners, especially Tarell Brown, could not cover the Falcons' receivers.

The 49ers still won.

You could make a list of heroes for the heroic 49ers: Jim Harbaugh, Colin Kaepernick, Justin Smith, Vernon Davis — finally offensive coordinator Greg Roman remembered he has a tight end named Davis. But one Niner stands out for historic reasons and reasons of the heart. That 49er is Frank Gore.

Picture this scene. Harbaugh came first to the postgame interview room, a glorified dungeon off a chilly corridor underneath the stadium. He stood on a platform, behind a podium and answered questions and said he's proud of his team. The usual.

Then came Colin Kaepernick. He and Harbaugh hugged as they passed each other. Kaepernick smiled a lot and was more relaxed than usual. Why not? While he answered questions, Frank Gore entered the room. This was unusual as the next interviewee/player generally waits for the current interviewee/player to finish before joining the confab. Not Gore.

He jumped on the podium and smacked Kaepernick's shoulder pads, thwack, thwack. Kaepernick smiled but kept answering. Gore proceeded to pace back and forth behind Kaepernick. Every once in a while, he'd smack those shoulder pads.

We'll leave Gore pacing for a moment and tell you what Harbaugh said about him before Gore entered stage left. "I really believe he'll be in the Hall of Fame someday," Harbaugh had said. "He is one of the greatest competitors I've ever met."

Harbaugh is not a gusher. He's usually gush-free. But talking about Gore he became a regular Old Faithful. And Gore deserved it with his two touchdowns and 90 yards on 21 carries. The Falcons found ways to limit Kaepernick's running. No problem. Gore gored them.

So, there was Gore pacing and interrupting. He pointed to a surprised Kaepernick in the middle of a Kaepernick sentence and said, "He's a hard worker, man. He takes practice serious and he leads us. If it wasn't for him, it would have been a tough game." Gore then smacked Kaepernick's pads yet again in a demonstration of admiration approaching love.

Sensing this had become the Frank Gore Show, Kaepernick exited. Gore leaned into the microphone like Frank Sinatra about to sing, "I Did It My Way."

"I'm just happy all these years we've been struggling and struggling and struggling," he said.

This is his eighth year as a 49er and he has toiled in semi-obscurity considering he's a great running back. He named teammates who have endured with him, used their first names. You will know them by their first names. "Pat, Justin, Vernon, Crab, myself, Alex and the list goes on and on. We stayed together." He said the right coaches arrived to lead them. This was not a speech of acceptance. It was a speech of thanks and relief.

And then he made the key statement, the remark that explained the win, that explained the entire 49ers' season to this point. He said the 49ers are "built for this type of game."

I asked what he meant by "built for this type of game."

"We're tough," he said. "It's hard to break us. When we get down, we're not giving up. We're not going to give up. We keep fighting. We fight. Been a long time and we came a long way as a team."

The concept he expressed is vague in its way and certainly not as concrete as a stiff arm to the chest. But it means the Niners, among other things, willed themselves to the Super Bowl, would not take "No" for an answer. They are an old-style tough team that can stop your run game and impose their run game on you. Despite all the advances in football, this duality still is the key to victory. And when the Niners deleted the Falcons' run game — no matter how good quarterback Matt Ryan was — the Falcons became bird stew.

The Falcons had two chances to win near the very end, two chances at the Niners' 10-yard line. Ryan threw two passes and the Niners knocked them away — Ahmad Brooks and then NaVorro Bowman. It was like gods swatting away the feeble hopes of mere mortals. Greek tragedy complete.

The 49ers are going to the Super Bowl.

For more on the world of sports in general and the Bay Area in particular, go to the Cohn Zohn at cohn.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. You can reach Staff Columnist Lowell Cohn at lowell.cohn@pressdemocrat.com.