ATLANTA (AP) — Four years after losing to San Francisco in the NFC championship game at the Georgia Dome, the Atlanta Falcons finally are moving closer to a return to the playoffs.
The 49ers are far from the playoffs as they try to end a franchise-record 12-game losing streak in Sunday’s game against the Falcons.
The Falcons (8-5) are tied for the NFC South lead and hold the tiebreaker advantage over Tampa Bay. They are trying for their first winning record since finishing 13-3 with the loss to the 49ers in the NFC championship game to end their 2012 season.
Quarterback Matt Ryan says he’s not following other scores, including the Buccaneers, during games.
“I don’t worry about it too much,” Ryan said Wednesday. “At the end of the day, we have to play our best. … What everybody else does, if we handle our business it doesn’t matter.”
Despite playing without injured wide receivers Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, the Falcons rolled to a 42-14 win at the Los Angeles Rams last week.
Atlanta may be without Jones, who has a sprained toe, for the second straight week. Sanu is expected to return from a groin injury.
The Falcons average a league-leading 32.9 points per game as Ryan already has his sixth straight season with 4,000 yards passing. It’s a tough test for the reeling 49ers (1-12), who are allowing the most points (30.2) per game in the league.
“They’re as good of an offense as there is right now in the NFL,” said Niners defensive coordinator Jim O’Neil, who added Ryan is “as good of a quarterback as you have right now in the NFL.”
The Falcons offense has strong balance. Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman each have seven rushing touchdowns. Ryan has thrown scoring passes to 11 targets, including to Justin Hardy and Taylor Gabriel last week.
“They’re probably the most complete offense that we’ve faced all year,” O’Neil said. “So it’ll be a challenge. We’re going to have to play really good football.”
It was a confidence-building week for the Falcons.
“I think it’s always hard anytime you have your top two wide receivers down,” Ryan said. “It’s tough to replace that. Our guys stepped up great.”
Here are some things to watch as the Falcons face the 49ers:
NO FUMBLES: Freeman and Coleman have no fumbles in their combined 269 carries and 62 receptions. Freeman leads the team with 791 yards rushing. Coleman has 328 yards rushing.
“I have a ton of respect for them and the fact they haven’t fumbled the ball this year, that’s incredible,” left tackle Jake Matthews said. “That goes to show you how hard they’ve been working at it. In my mindset, that means you just keep giving them opportunities to make plays. They’re really special players.”
FAST STARTS, SLOW FINISHES: Starting fast hasn’t been a problem for the Niners, who have scored first in 10 of their 13 games. The problem has been San Francisco lost nine of those, tying the NFL record for most losses when scoring first, according to Pro Football Reference.
The Niners blew their third 14-point lead of the season last week to the Jets. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick has been a big part of the problem. Kaepernick leads all qualifying QBs in passer rating (119.5), completion percentage (71.7) and yards per attempt (9.4) in the first half, while ranking last at 42.9 percent completions and 4.6 yards per attempt, and second worst with a 61.3 rating the rest of the game.
“If there was one thing we could do that we could change it, we would,” Kaepernick said. “There are a lot of things that play into that. But, once again, we have to be able to be better in the second half.”
BEASLEY’S BREAKOUT: Atlanta second-year linebacker/defensive end Vic Beasley continued his breakout season with three sacks last week. He has 13 ½ sacks to share the NFL lead with Denver’s Von Miller. Beasley leads the league with six forced fumbles, including one against the Rams he returned 21 yards for a touchdown.
BUCKNER’S BOOST: One of the rare bright spots for San Francisco has been the play of first-round defensive lineman DeForest Buckner. Buckner had two sacks against the Jets. Buckner has played the third-most defensive snaps of any defensive lineman in the league this season and has missed just six defensive plays the past five games, according to Pro Football Focus.
“There’s just no way you can take that guy out and there’s no way he wants to be out,” O’Neil said.
RUN AND HYDE: Carlos Hyde is coming off the best day of his career, having rushed 193 yards on just 17 carries last week against the Jets. Hyde had four runs of at least 20 yards, including 47- and 43-yarders, and also caught a 7-yard touchdown pass. Hyde needs just 121 yards over the final three games for his first career 1,000-yard season.