By Simon Evans
ATLANTA, Jan 20 (Reuters) - Colin Kaepernick showed he has the big-game temperament as he led the San Francisco 49ers on a record NFC Championship comeback over the Atlanta Falcons and into the Super Bowl for the first time in 18 years.
Kaepernick, making just his ninth NFL start after taking over from injured incumbent Alex Smith midway through the NFL season, showed he is more than up for the task as he completed 16-of-21 passes for 233 yards and a touchdown.
"He just played great. I don't even know how to say it. It was a great performance by the quarterback," 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh said after his team's 28-24 win.
"He just competes like a maniac all the time, in practice and in games. It's always the same when I'm looking in through the facemasks, that is what I'm seeing the guy doing."
The second-year quarterback did not come close to the record 181-yard rushing performance that gained him plenty of attention after last week's win over Green Bay but still led an offense that made effective use of the running game in the second half.
It was Kaepernick's calmness under intense pressure while staring at a 17-point second quarter deficit to the top-seeded Falcons that was most impressive.
"Going out on the field frantic isn't going to help you lead, you have to stay calm and try to lead your team," the 25-year-old, whose second-quarter touchdown pass to Vernon Davis pulled his team to within three points, told reporters.
Kaepernick showed his leadership ability by entering the field late in the fourth quarter to encourage an Atlanta defense that did not allow a point in the second half to keep out the Falcons.
"I went there and talked to them, told them this is for a Super Bowl. They said, 'We got you.'"
A word of encouragement, a cool head when needed, but also the ability to lead by example with his two second quarter touchdown drives setting the tone for the second half.
After going down by 17, Kaepernick said that there was a real sense that the game could slip beyond their grasp if San Francisco did not respond.
"We just knew we had to score on that next drive. You can't let a team like this get any more than that," he said.
Harbaugh came in for some criticism for sticking with Kaepernick when Smith was deemed healthy a week after his injury but his decision has been amply justified.
The coach declined a chance to reflect on that decision while Kaepernick said simply: "I'm just glad he made that decision."
He is not the only one.
"He can do whatever he wants, run the ball, throw the ball, he is a football player," enthused running back Frank Gore, whose second half touchdowns earned the 49ers the win.
It was clear that Atlanta's defense were pre-occupied with stopping Kaepernick from making the kind of runs that destroyed Green Bay last week, but he said he was unconcerned with the debate over whether to dub him a 'running quarterback.'
"I don't want to be categorized as a quarterback, I want to be my own man." (Editing by Frank Pingue)