Dashed Hopes

A pair of struggling teams hoping to turn their seasons around meet Sunday when the San Francisco 49ers visit the last-place Atlanta Falcons.

The 49ers (2-5) entered 2007 hoping to challenge for their first playoff appearance in five years. Instead, they are looking to avoid their first six-game losing streak since a seven-game slide from Nov. 6-Dec. 18, 2005, quarterback Alex Smith's rookie season.

These teams used to be NFC West rivals prior to the league's 2001 realignment, but have not faced each other since a 21-19 Falcons victory at San Francisco on Sept. 12, 2004. The 49ers hold a 44-26-1 all-time advantage in the series.

Oddsmakers from Bodog.com have made Atlanta -3.5 point spread favorites (View NFL Football odds) for Sunday's game, the over/under has been set at 37 total points (Game Matchup). Current public betting information shows that 57% of bets for this game have been placed on Atlanta -3.5 (View NFL Football bet percentages).

Smith helped lead San Francisco to a 2-0 start, but his promising season took a turn for the worse after he suffered a shoulder injury in a loss to Seattle on Sept. 30.

The former top overall draft pick missed two games with the injury, and was given a painkilling shot before last week's 31-10 home loss to New Orleans, in which he completed 22-of-43 passes for 190 yards and a late 7-yard touchdown pass to Vernon Davis.

"When your arm is sore, it can change certain things," Niners coach Mike Nolan said. "But it wasn't sore to the (point) that he thought he had to come out, or couldn't do his job."

Smith, who has completed 51.2 percent of his passes for 651 yards, two scores and one interception in the five games he has played, is focused on putting together a strong second half to the season and closing the two-game gap on NFC West-leading Seattle.

"The big thing for this team, for me, is finishing," said Smith. "We got ourselves into this, and we've got to dig our way out. I'm still learning, but it's going to be uncomfortable. It's still going to hurt."

Frank Gore is also having injury problems after twisting his ankle against the Saints and finishing with just 41 rushing yards on 12 carries. The third-year running back has struggled this season after leading the NFC with 1,695 rushing yards in 2006, while surpassing the 100-yard plateau in nine games. He has not reached the century mark in 2007, totaling 435 yards and three TDs - none during the five-game losing streak.

Gore showed his frustration against the Saints, throwing his helmet in disgust. It came a week after he criticized first-year offensive coordinator Jim Hostler following San Francisco's 33-15 loss to the New York Giants on Oct. 21.

"Everybody has their chin up," said Davis. "Everybody is confident. Guys around here, they're not going to show their anger. They're just going to keep their head up and move on."

Despite the losing streak, rookie linebacker Patrick Willis has shown promise by leading the NFL with 10.4 tackles per game, and his 73 total tackles are second only to Tampa Bay's Barrett Ruud (78). Willis has at least 10 tackles in each of the past four games.

The Falcons (1-6), who are at the bottom of the NFC South, look to halt their second three-game skid of the season as they emerge from their bye week.

They'll turn to Joey Harrington at quarterback again after Byron Leftwich underwent surgery on his right ankle last week, ruling him out for three to four weeks.

Harrington lost the starting job to Leftwich two weeks ago, but is getting another chance after Leftwich was injured during a 22-16 loss at New Orleans on Oct. 21. Harrington went 12-for-18 for 128 yards in that contest after struggling in six games as the starter, when he managed to throw only four TDs along with four interceptions.

Chris Redman, who has not taken a snap in the NFL since playing for Baltimore in 2003, is the only backup to Harrington with running back Warrick Dunn expected to serve emergency duties.

"We would go back to the old single wing," Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said. "That wouldn't be a lot of fun."

Petrino had other concerns during the week, meeting with disgruntled DeAngelo Hall on Monday after the cornerback went on a tirade against the coaching staff over the surprising release of nose tackle Grady Jackson.

"I don't know what kind of message is being sent to let Grady go," Hall said. "I'm trying to go (all) out on every single snap. But a lot of guys feel like everyone from the top down is kind of turning it in."

Hall, who was also fined $100,000 and had to sit out the first half of a game for getting into a sideline confrontation with the rookie coach during Week 3, has not talked to the media since his latest meeting with Petrino.

By: Staff Writers - Email Us

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