By Josh Dubow | The Associated Press
SANTA CLARA, Calif. (AP) — The lackluster first two months of the season are a distant memory for the San Francisco 49ers. Heading down the stretch, the Niners have hit their stride and put themselves in prime position for a playoff spot.
Jimmy Garoppolo threw for 235 yards and a touchdown, San Francisco ran for three more scores and the 49ers won for the fifth time in six games, beating the Atlanta Falcons 31-13 on Sunday.
“Guys were locked in today,” Garoppolo said. “You felt it throughout the week, too. It was a big game, NFC opponent, playoff picture and everything like that. It’s December football. We knew what we were in for.”
The Niners (8-6) scored touchdowns on four straight drives to make easy work of the Falcons (6-8) to remain in wild-card position as the sixth-place team in the NFC.
They’ve turned the season around after stumbling to a 3-5 start by cutting down on turnovers, controlling the game on the ground and using a relentless pass rush on defense.
“I think we’re peaking at a good time,” fullback Kyle Juszczyk said. “We’re definitely not playing the best as we can. There’s a lot of things that didn’t exactly go our way, but we were able to battle back and not let it faze us early on. I feel like we’re playing good ball right now and stacking some weeks.”
Atlanta hasn’t been able to do the same and once again got outclassed by one of the contenders. The Falcons have been outscored by 23.8 points per game in losing all five matchups against teams that currently have winning records.
The Falcons got stopped at the goal line on their first possession of the game and lost a fumble on a strip sack by Nick Bosa on the opening drive of the second half. That fumble recovery by Fred Warner came two plays after Samson Ebukam opened the half with a sack.
“That was huge,” Bosa said. “Simpson made a big play on the play action and then I had a nice power rush. Fred and Sampson ran a good game over there to make him flush out of the pocket. I ran him down.”
That helped the Niners take control as they took advantage of the good field position to drive 38 yards to take a 24-10 lead on Jeff Wilson Jr.’s 5-yard run.
The Falcons settled for a field goal in the red zone on their next possession when pressure by Arden Key forced Matt Ryan into an incomplete pass on third-and-goal from the 4.
San Francisco responded with a 75-yard drive capped by Garoppolo’s 4-yard TD pass to Jauan Jennings.
Juszczyk and and Deebo Samuel scored on San Francisco’s other TD runs in the first half.
Ryan threw for 236 yards with a 20-yard TD to Russell Gage in the first half, but was under relentless pressure most of the game.
The Falcons struggled near the goal line, running 13 plays from the 10-yard line or closer without scoring a TD, tied for the second-most plays that close to the end zone without a touchdown since 1991. Atlanta was stopped on five plays from the 1.
“We’ve got to be better,” Ryan said. “In short-yardage situations, where you just need a yard, we’ve got to find a way to really convert those at a high level. Good football teams do that. And we weren’t good enough at that today.”
Bosa’s sack was his 15th of the season and gave him sacks in six straight games, the longest for a 49ers player since Aldon Smith did it in seven straight games in 2012.
Bosa is 4 1/2 sacks shy of Smith’s franchise record 19 1/2 sacks that season.
The 49ers took a 17-10 lead into the half after Samuel took a handoff and scored on a 10-yard run with 33 seconds left in the second quarter.
Samuel has run for a TD in his past five games, giving him seven on the season. His streak is the third longest for San Francisco since the merger, trailing only Raheem Mostert (six in 2019) and Derek Loville (six in 1995).
The Niners got off to a rough start when JaMycal Hasty fumbled the opening kick to give Atlanta the ball at the 12.
But the Falcons couldn’t capitalize after getting a first-and-goal at the 1 with Cordarrelle Patterson getting stopped on two carries and Ryan throwing a pair of incompletions.
After Atlanta got a field goal on its second drive, Hasty fumbled another kickoff, losing it out of bounds at the 9.
Falcons: WR Tajae Sharpe (foot) left in the second half and didn’t return.
49ers: S Talanoa Hufanga (knee) left in the first half and didn’t return. … Bosa left briefly with a head injury, but was cleared to return.
Falcons: Host Lions on Sunday.
49ers: Visit Tennessee on Thursday night.