Make no mistake, the best way to advance the football in today’s NFL is by throwing it.

In both the NFC and AFC title matches this past Sunday, the sphere was in the air, but there was also hard-hitting defenses that helped make possible San Francisco’s and Baltimore’s date in New Orleans for Super Bowl XLVII, which will pit the 49ers’ Head Coach Jim Harbaugh against his older brother, the Ravens’ head man John Harbaugh.

The 49ers fell behind early but rallied for a 28-24 victory over the Atlanta Falcons at the Georgia Dome, while the Ravens shocked the New England Patriots, 28-13, at Gillette Stadium, and in each case the losing team didn’t score in the second half.

“I might be the captain of the defense,’’ said 49ers’ linebacker Patrick Willis, who had 11 solo tackles and one assist as the unit held Atlanta to 81 yards on the ground, “but it’s our team. We play together.”

San Francisco running back Frank Gore (90 yards on 21 carries) accounted for a pair of second-half touchdowns.

Gore’s five-yard burst with 10:47 left in the third quarter cut Atlanta’s lead to 24-21, and his nine-yard sprint put the 49ers ahead by four points as 8:23 remained in the final quarter.

San Francisco (13-4-1) looked to be in big trouble after Atlanta quarterback Matt Ryan (30 of 42 for 396 yards with an interception) hit Julio Jones (11 receptions for 182 yards) with a 46-yard bomb and 11:24 left in the opening quarter.

Matt Bryant’s 35-yard field goal with 3:20 showing in the same quarter made it 10-0, and Ryan’s 20-yard strike to Jones early in the second quarter gave the Falcons (14-4) a 17-0 lead.

San Francisco running back LaMichael James (34 yards on five rushes) broke the spell with a 15-yard sprint as 8:08 remained before the half and cut it to a 10-point margin.

The 49ers closed within 17-14 when field general Colin Kaepernick (16 of 21 for 233 yards) drilled tight end Vernon Davis (106 yards and five catches) with a four-yard pass as 1:55 was left in the second quarter.

Ryan hit tight end Tony Gonzalez (78 yards and eight receptions) with a 10-yard bullet just before the half as the Falcons pulled ahead, 24-14.

The Patriots (13-5) appeared headed to their sixth Super Bowl under Head Coach Bill Belichick after taking a 13-7 lead as Stephen Gostkowski nailed a 31-yard field goal with 6:21 left in the first quarter and quarterback Tom Brady (29 of 54 for 320 yards and two second-half picks) located Wes Welker (117 yards and eight catches) with a one-yard toss and 4:18 remaining before the break.

Sandwiched in between was a two-yard romp by running back Ray Rice (19 carries for 48 yards) as the Ravens (13-6) tied it at 7-7 with 9:28 left in the second quarter.

Gostkowski’s 25-yarder just before the half was New England’s final points as Baltimore signal caller Joe Flacco (21 of 36 for 240 yards) unloaded three second-half scoring passes.

“Everything is possible,’’ said Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis, who had eight assists and six solo tackles, “if you believe, and we believe. It’s our time.”

The first was a five-yarder to tight end Dennis Pitta (five catches for 55 yards) with 6:14 left in the third quarter, the second a three-yarder to Anquan Boldin (60 yards and five receptions) early in the fourth quarter.

Flacco’s last score went to Boldin and covered 11 yards as 11:13 remained in the game.

Rick Assad has been a sportswriter for more than two decades. He has a political science degree from UCLA, a journalism degree from CSUN, is a staff writer for, and is a columnist for You may e-mail him at

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