SAN FRANCISCO -- Finally, the San Francisco 49ers might be running into some resistance in the NFC West.
The dominant team in the division for nearly 20 years, the 49ers (2-0) are off to another imposing start, but the Atlanta Falcons (2-0) have matched them. And they head into Sunday's game with a rare opportunity to weaken San Francisco's seemingly perpetual grip on the division while strengthening their own hand.
"They're definitely still the favorite," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said. "The Saints are 2-0. We're 2-0. But this is a test for both of us, to see what we can do when we play the 49ers.
"I just know that they're a better football right now than the rest of us. But that's the reason you play the game. We've got to rise to the occasion. We've got to go out and play as well as we can and we'll see where that puts us."
San Francisco is anxious to stay on track for a 14th division title since 1981 and quash Atlanta's aspirations in the process.
"The winner of this game is going to be out front of the division. Our intention is to get there and stay there," 49ers coach Steve Mariucci said. "We know this is a huge game for them, because if they somehow beat us, in our own place, they're out front and they get us back there next time."
The 49ers have had their way with the Falcons, winning 12 of the 16 matchups in the 1990s. They swept the season series in five of those eight seasons, and have not lost to the Falcons at home since 1991.
"There's a lot of teams that have had problems the last seven, eight, dozen years at Candlestick," said Falcons quarterback Chris Chandler, the second-rated passer behind San Francisco's Steve Young last season. "We try not to think too much about what's happened in the past. We know regardless of the past that it's going to be a tough game going in there anytime."
San Francisco tackle Derrick Deese said he knows the Falcons see Sunday's matchup as a chance to reverse years of frustration.
"The more a team loses to one team, the more that team is going to come in madder and madder and they definitely want to win, because they're doing things every year to make their team better," Deese said. "That's what we're tying to do, too, keep our team on a higher level so we can keep winning. But every year, it's going to be a different challenge.
"We're not just going to walk out there and win the game, because we're the 49ers," added Deese. "We know every Sunday, we have to go out there and fight."
Last year in San Francisco, it wasn't much of a fight. The 49ers rolled to a 31-0 lead and won 34-7.
But Atlanta has put together a string of solid outings, winning seven of its last eight games. The Falcons have their best start since beginning 1986 with four victories.
More importantly, the Falcons defense poses the toughest hurdle yet for San Francisco's top-ranked offense, which behind Young, Jerry Rice and Garrison Hearst averaged 530 yards and 40 points in the first two games.
Atlanta has allowed just 58.5 yards per game rushing, second best in the NFL, and hasn't allowed a 100-yard rusher in the past 10 games. But run or pass, the 49ers' attack has been equally devastating.
"If we have to throw the ball to open things up we will," said Hearst, whose 325 yards rushing leads the NFC. "If we have to run the ball, we will. I think we'll get out there and do what it takes. You never know what's going to come week by week with this offense."
Reeves, who is 3-6 lifetime against the 49ers, said he views San Francisco as one of the most powerful offensive teams he's faced.
"They are very balanced and it's very difficult to say we're going to load up and stop the running game, because they'll kill you with the passing game," Reeves said. "What we've got to do is try to contain them and slow them down some, and offensively we've got to do a good job of trying to keep the ball away from them."
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