ATLANTA — Nineteen meaningful games, 12 previous victories, endless hours of sweat and pain and mind-numbing repetition, and the 49ers' season had come down to this: One minute, 18 seconds remained in the NFC championship game, and the Atlanta Falcons needed four yards for a first down, and 10 yards for the touchdown that would restore their lead — and most likely send them to Super Bowl XLVII in New Orleans.

On the sidelines, the 49ers' offensive linemen huddled together and hoped. Some of them couldn't bear to look.

"I didn't watch it. My head was down," center Jonathan Goodwin said. "I listened for (Alex) Boone and Mike Iupati's reaction, and I didn't hear the crowd go crazy, so I knew something good happened for the 49ers."

Make that something great. Linebackers Ahmad Brooks and NaVorro Bowman broke up passes on consecutive plays, ending the threat and sending the Niners on their way to a 28-24 victory. They are headed to the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years, hoping to build upon the franchise's 5-0 record in America's biggest sporting event.

Both of those final passes were intended for wide receiver Roddy White. The first was an out route on third down, and Brooks went high to bat it away at the line of scrimmage. The second, Atlanta's last real chance, was a short route over the middle. Bowman hugged close to White and never let him get his hands around the ball.

"Anytime they put a wide receiver inside (in the slot) in the red zone, you know they're coming to him," Bowman said. "They want to get the matchup of a linebacker on a receiver, and I was ready for it."

And so it was a defensive stop that ultimately decided a game that, at times, seemed to be an offensive runaway. From the start of the second quarter to early in the third, the teams combined for five scores on six possessions, a flurry that left the 49ers trailing 24-21.

Then both offenses suddenly got sloppy. Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan, still fighting a reputation for postseason letdowns, threw an off-target interception to 49ers cornerback Chris Culliver. San Francisco drove to the Falcons' 20-yard line, only to have David Akers' 38-yard field goal attempt bounce off the left upright. Ryan fumbled a shotgun snap, and the ball was recovered by Niners linebacker Aldon Smith.

Finally on the cusp of taking the lead, the 49ers had opportunity ripped from them when wide receiver Michael Crabtree caught a slant inside the 5, fought for the end zone and had the ball stripped by cornerback Dunta Robinson. Linebacker Stephen Nicholas recovered for the Falcons at the 1-yard line.

But the 49ers weren't done. The defense forced a three-and-out, Ted Ginn returned the ensuing punt to the Atlanta 38-yard line, and six plays later, Frank Gore ran 9 yards for his second touchdown. This one gave the Niners their first lead of the game at 28-24, and they made it hold up, finally breaking the pattern of win-win-loss (or tie) that had vexed them all season.

For a while, it looked like that three-game winning streak would elude the 49ers again.

The Falcons, underdogs despite earning the No. 1 seed in the NFC, came out of the gates like champions. After the first quarter they had 182 total yards; the 49ers had minus-2.

Atlanta scored on its first three possessions and built a 17-0 lead, with wide receiver Julio Jones doing much of the damage. Jones had seven catches for 135 yards by halftime — he would finish with 11 for 182 — and scored two early touchdowns. The first, a 46-yarder, came on a deep ball after 49ers safeties Donte Whitner and Dashon Goldson miscommunicated. The second, 20 yards, was a brilliant catch in the end zone past cornerback Tarell Brown.

"They came out fast and they put points on the board and they stopped us," tight end Delanie Walker said. "But the team I know we are, we don't fold under pressure. You can't win the game in the first quarter."

Rather than caving, second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, playing in his first road playoff game, directed a grinding, 80-play drive that ended with a 15-yard touchdown run by LaMichael James.

After an Atlanta punt, San Francisco struck again on a drive that was dominated by tight end Vernon Davis, who capped it with a 4-yard touchdown catch.

It was a game after that, and a highly entertaining one.

"There was a while there I didn't think either team was gonna get stopped on offense," 49ers CEO Jed York said in the locker room. "Colin was just marching up and down the field. It was fun to watch. I mean, even for me who gets so nervous and tense during games, it was such a good football game. I mean, it was one of the greatest games I've ever seen. Not because we won — just both sides."

The Falcons are left to answer yet more questions about playoff failures. The 49ers, meanwhile, laid to rest last year's overtime loss to the New York Giants in the NFC title game, and will now pursue the franchise's sixth Super Bowl championship. Appropriately, Eddie DeBartolo, the owner who presided over the first five, was on the sidelines before this game.

For Jim Harbaugh, the victory only added to his expanding mystique. He got the 49ers to the playoffs in his first season as coach, and now to the Super Bowl in his second. And with his brother John getting a victory from his Baltimore Ravens on Sunday, the next two weeks promise to be a delirious festival of Harbaugh.

"It feels great," Jim said after his win. "I didn't get a chance to touch (the NFC championship trophy) yet. I don't want to touch it. I want to touch the big one, and the big one comes in two weeks in New Orleans. We're going to be ready."

Is America?

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com.