ATLANTA — In the farthest corner of the 49ers' rollicking locker room, tight end Vernon Davis — wearing a sweat-soaked undershirt and game pants, eye black smeared all over his face — spoke of heavy stuff like willpower and destiny.
"We just came into this game with the will to win," said an emotional Davis, the heart and soul of his team. Later, he added winning "wasn't really a surprise because, when I look at this team, this was a team that was destined to win."
Sure, those elements helped the 49ers reach the Super Bowl for the first time since the 1994 season.
But to chalk up San Francisco's thrilling 28-24 NFC Championship Game victory on Sunday over the Falcons to that alone would be to sell it short.
This was a game about staying the course, in spite of an early 17-0 deficit. It was a testament to focus amid the deafening noise in the Georgia Dome. But mostly, it was a textbook display of sticking with what worked before: stifling defense, a power running game and efficient passing.
The read option runs that let quarterback Colin Kaepernick gallop past the Packers a week before were almost nonexistent. Kaepernick ran one only such play Sunday, instead sitting in the pocket threading accurate passes to receivers — chiefly Davis (five catches, 106 yards).
The ingredients might have been similar, but the way this game played out could not have been more different than the division victory over Green Bay that sent the 49ers to Atlanta.
The early deficit was jarring, as the Falcons came out with a barrage that included a 46-yard Matt Ryan-to-Julio Jones touchdown on the game's first possession. Six seconds into the second quarter, those two hooked up for another score and a 17-0 lead.
Yet there was surprising calm on the 49ers' sideline.
"We said, 'Let's go,' " linebacker Aldon Smith said. "Nobody was yelling. Nobody was doubting anybody."
"Going out on the field frantic isn't going to help you score points," Kaepernick said.
The eventual 24-14 halftime deficit hardly seemed insurmountable for a team that expected to be here.
"We worked too hard to put ourselves back in this position," cornerback Carlos Rogers said, referencing the 49ers' loss to the Giants for last season's NFC title. "We knew it wasn't going to be easy. They're a hell of a team."
The composure was shown not only by players, but from the coaching staff. Offensive coordinator Greg Roman didn't tear up his game plan, sticking with the running game.
"We didn't have to get outside of ourselves," he said.
The balance let Kaepernick thrive. With good protection, he calmly delivered the ball, completing 16-of-21 passes for 233 yards. As for running, Kaepernick let Frank Gore (21 carries, 90 yards) do the heavy lifting one week after rushing for 181 yards.
Still, the Falcons had to be terribly worried about the potential for Kaepernick tucking and running around the perimeter.
"I think they were keeping their eye on him and we were getting behind their linebackers and he was making perfect throws," tight end Delanie Walker said. "I think that hurt them. But you never know what Kaep is going to do."
Meanwhile, a 49ers defense that gave up 297 yards in the first half stiffened to pitch a shutout the rest of the way. The defense made the game's most critical play, with linebacker NaVorro Bowman breaking up a fourth-down pass to Roddy White at the 49ers' 10-yard line with 1:10 remaining.
Bowman, who perhaps got away with holding on the play, made what defensive tackle Justin Smith called "a season-saving play."
Now, the 49ers take their will to win and destiny to New Orleans. That, plus the kind of football they played Sunday, might be enough to win the franchise's sixth Super Bowl.