ATLANTA

In case you missed the 49ers' first quarter Sunday, here is what it resembled: A train wreck.

In case you missed the rest of the game, here is what it resembled: A beautiful train ride to New Orleans.

That became the 49ers' new destination city after they earned an invitation to Super Bowl XLVII for the first time in 18 years and their sixth trip overall to the NFL's ultimate party. And this one will be extraordinarily historic: The Super Sibling Bowl.

Never have brothers met as coaches in a pro football championship game. But when Jim Harbaugh leads the 49ers onto the field Feb. 3 at 3:30 p.m., the man on the opposing sideline will be his older brother, John Harbaugh, coach of the Baltimore Ravens.

"I don't know if we had a dream this big," a beaming John said

Sunday night after the Ravens won their Super Bowl trip by beating New England. "But we'll try and stay out of that business and let the two teams duke it out as much as possible."

Jim Harbaugh could not be reached for comment. He was 30,000 feet over land, traveling home from Atlanta after the 49ers had won their way into the matchup with a 28-24 victory over the Falcons -- by unfurling the greatest comeback in the history of the NFC Championship game.

"It was an amazing game to watch," said 49er owner Jed York. "One of the best football games I've ever seen."

York is just 32 years old. But he's got a good argument.

There are many ways for an NFL team to reach a Super Bowl. The 49ers took a path that was agonizing and hideous and glorious and nerve-racking and uplifting and revolting and stunning and triumphant -- all in less than three hours. They fell behind the Atlanta Falcons here, 17-0, and now they're going to the Super Bowl.

Perhaps by then, the 49ers will finally have figured out how they managed to claw from so far behind to take their first lead halfway through the fourth quarter, then make a bold defensive stand inside their own 20-yard line to hold off a tough Falcons team in a very clamorous Georgia Dome. On Sunday night, some were still at a loss for words about how it exactly happened.

"They always say a man's true character will come out in adversity," said 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis afterward.

Whether or not you believe that's a cliché, the 49ers had no choice but to find their true selves Sunday unless they wanted their season to be done. The Falcons overwhelmed them in the first quarter to such an extent that the 49ers offense possessed the ball for just three minutes and 12 seconds.

Things reached a nadir when Atlanta took that 17-0 lead on the first play of the second quarter. Up in the visiting owners' box, York was feeling overwrought. So he turned his gaze to Jaxon, his 3-month-old son.

"I picked up Jax, and he calmed me down," York said. "And I got to hold onto him during our first touchdown drive."

That drive cut the Falcons' lead to 17-7 and was the 49ers' first real spark of life. York wondered whether he should ever put down his son. Instead, he and wife, Danielle, alternated holding the baby the rest of the game.

Meanwhile, on the field, the 49ers were gathering themselves and figuring out their next moves. Their view on the bench was that the Falcons were simply playing near-perfect football, and it would be hard for them to continue doing so -- especially if the 49ers brought more heat.

"We weren't frustrated," said defensive lineman Justin Smith. "We knew they were a good team. We knew we weren't going to go on the road and just shut everybody down. ... Guys stepped up and made some plays. Big-time players make big-time plays."

"There was no fear," agreed offensive lineman Alex Boone. "Nobody got out of whack. We knew we just needed a little momentum to get going."

Hello there, momentum. The 49ers offense scored again on its next possession to make it 17-14. The Falcons scored just before halftime to lead 24-14, but once the third quarter began, the 49ers took ownership offensively and defensively. On the Falcons' five possessions in the second half, Atlanta gave up the ball twice on turnovers -- an interception and a fumble -- and scored zero points.

On the flip side, 49ers' running back, Frank Gore scored twice to give his team a 28-24 lead with 8:23 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Still, there was one very hairy sequence remaining. The Falcons' offense churned out one last effective drive and had a first down at the 49ers' 16-yard line with 2:23 left. The defense needed one more shutdown series. Niners quarterback Colin Kaepernick, watching from the bench, stepped onto the field during a timeout and yelled at his defensive teammates: "This is for the Super Bowl! I've got confidence in you!"

The next four plays will become famous in team lore. On first down, Willis jammed a Falcons' run for a 1-yard gain. On second down, Willis and fellow linebacker Ahmad Brooks held a pass play to 5 positive yards. On third down, Brooks batted down a pass. And on fourth down, linebacker NaVorro Bowman positioned himself perfectly and blew up another pass play. The 49ers took over the ball on downs with 1:09 left.

After the game, Jim Harbaugh was asked whether he'd felt comfortable with his defense as that crucial Falcons series began. Harbaugh -- who had suffered a mini-meltdown a few plays earlier when a replay challenge went against him -- was surprisingly honest.

"Wow," Harbuagh said. "If you would phrase that using a different word. ... Comfortable is not in the football lexicon. We rose up there at the end, and it was a great finish for our defense, an exclamation point."

There was one more semi-nervous moment when the Falcons got the ball back for a single offensive play. But it went nowhere. And at long last, veteran players such as Gore and Smith and others will be making their first trip to the NFL's championship game.

Smith admitted that there were "absolutely" times when he wondered if this day would ever come. The same for safety Donte Whitner, who spent five years toiling in Buffalo obscurity and losing and losing and losing before signing with the 49ers.

"There was a time when you wondered whether something like this would ever be possible," Whitner said. "But now, I see that everything is possible."

The possibilities now stretch from here to Bourbon Street. We've got two weeks to wallow in a matchup with Baltimore between the two Harbaugh brothers, along with so many other angles. But for now, it's fine to savor Sunday's unforgettable outcome.

Here's one thing you can say for sure: It was the best football game that Jax York has ever seen.

Contact Mark Purdy at mpurdy@mercurynews.com. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/MercPurdy.