ATLANTA -- For years he had dreamed of the moment, and when it arrived early Sunday evening Frank Gore was nearly speechless. He stammered for a moment, with no consistent train of thought. Then he smiled wide.
"I don't know what to say; I'm just happy," he said at his locker after the 49ers clinched their first Super Bowl berth in 18 years by rallying past -- and then holding off -- the top-seeded Falcons for a 28-24 victory in the Georgia Dome.
It has been a long road back to this point for the 49ers, who were one of the NFL's great dynasties during the 1980s and early 1990s. They won five Super Bowls in as many appearances and had 16 consecutive seasons of at least 10 wins, including 10 years with 12 or more victories.
But hard times followed. From 2003-10 there were eight straight years of non-winning seasons that were preceded by a messy transfer of ownership from Eddie DeBartolo, Jr., to his sister, Denise DeBartolo-York. Worse than being bad, the 49ers were irrelevant. But no more.