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NFL: Falcons, 49ers fight for playoff position

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Playoff position is on the mind of the San Francisco 49ers when they welcome the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday afternoon at Santa Clara, Calif.

The 49ers (7-6) are in good position to land an NFC wild-card berth after winning four of their past five games. San Francisco has the sixth-best record in the conference.

San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan knows what is at stake but isn’t the least bit consumed about where his team stands in the pecking order.

“I personally don’t think about positioning at all,” Shanahan told reporters. “I just think of how to get there.

“The main thing you always look at is just how you get a home game. And it’s far away from looking at it that way. So no, I haven’t considered anything except win enough games ’til they tell us we’re in.”

The 49ers have won two games by 20 or more points during the five-game stretch. The club is averaging 28.8 points per game with three performances of 30 or more over that span.

San Francisco led 20-6 in the fourth quarter against the Cincinnati Bengals before things got dicey. The Bengals rallied to force overtime and then took the lead before Jimmy Garoppolo tossed the decisive 12-yard scoring pass to Brandon Aiyuk for a 26-23 win.

“Getting a win like that does a lot for the growth and maturity of a team,” 49ers standout linebacker Fred Warner said. “Those scrappy ones, they mean the most.”

The Falcons (6-7) are proud of their recent victories and they are in the mix for one of the NFC’s seven playoff berths.

Atlanta appeared ready to sink when it was demolished by a combined 68-3 in a two-game stretch against the Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots. The Falcons’ 33-point halftime deficit against Dallas was their largest since trailing the Johnny Unitas-led Baltimore Colts 35-0 on Nov. 12, 1967.

But instead of further distress, the Falcons rebounded to win two of their next three games, including last Sunday’s 29-21 road win over the Carolina Panthers.

That victory improved Atlanta to 6-2 in one-score games, results measured by eight points or fewer. Two of the Falcons’ wins are by two points and another is by three.

Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan said taking care of all the minor things and playing smarter have been keys.

“Those things matter in this league where there is such a competitive balance,” Ryan told reporters. “If you can do those little things right situationally, it leads to those wins.”

Atlanta is one of five NFC teams with a 6-7 record, so there is little margin for error. The Falcons’ final three regular-season games line up this way: home against the Detroit Lions, at the Buffalo Bills and home vs. the New Orleans Saints.

Atlanta coach Arthur Smith is glad his team is playing meaningful games in mid-December.

“I told them that I’m proud of them like I always am to coach this team,” Smith said. “It’s a great group of guys in there. They work extremely hard and they fight. It’s an unselfish group, so I’m always reminding them how proud I am to be their coach.”

The Falcons were one seven of NFL teams to be placed in enhanced COVID-19 protocol earlier this week. So far, they haven’t had a key player affected.

Outside linebacker Dante Fowler (calf) and tight end Hayden Hurst (illness) sat out practice on Wednesday. Smith said safety Erik Harris (chest) will be placed on injured reserve and is done for the season.

The 49ers ended the season of defensive end Dee Ford (back, neck) on Wednesday by declining to activate him off injured reserve. The decision was made on the 21st and final day of his activation window.

Among the San Francisco players to sit out practice with injuries on Wednesday were linebacker Dre Greenlaw (groin), tight end George Kittle (knee) and running back Elijah Mitchell (concussion, knee). Warner (ankle) was a limited participant.

The Falcons have won the past two meetings, including a 29-22 win on Dec. 15, 2019 in their most recent visit to the Bay Area.

–Field Level Media

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