FLOWERY BRANCH - Coach Bobby Petrino cracked a slight grin when asked about the Atlanta Falcons' first NFC victory.
His team needed five tries to beat a conference opponent. Petrino was grateful that the Falcons stopped the dreadful streak before this week's game at Carolina.
'The way the team stayed together in the bye week with the attitude is a credit to the veterans,' Petrino said Monday after watching film of Atlanta's 20-16 win over San Francisco.
'They are helping the young guys grow and get better. We are a very young football team, and I don't know if anyone else is playing that many rookies.'
Only St. Louis, at 0-6, has a worse NFC record.
'You play one week at a time and keep preparing,' Petrino said. 'We knew that if we stayed with it we would hopefully get better as the year went on. We have to take this game, battle and try to get another win.'
If the Falcons can turn their season around, the running game must build on its effort against the 49ers. Atlanta is 0-5 when opponents outgain them on the ground, and Petrino hopes it's not a harbinger that No. 2 running back Jerious Norwood is uncertain entering this week.
Norwood, who ranks third among NFL backs with at least 30 carries with an average of 5.9 yards per carry, was unable to return after leaving with a right ankle sprain in the first quarter. Without suspended quarterback Michael Vick, Norwood is Atlanta's only runner with game-changing speed.
Warrick Dunn, coming off his first 100-yard performance in his last 18 games, would welcome more work, particularly after missing a lot of training camp and most of the preseason as he recovered from back surgery in July.
'I just think for so long, this season has been up and down for me, and finally I actually am starting to feel healthy,' said Dunn, who needs 147 yards to become the 21st NFL player to reach 10,000 in his career. 'Now I just want to be at the point of playing consistently.'
Norwood isn't the only injury concern offensively.
Four-time Pro Bowl tight end Alge Crumpler hopes to return after missing the last two games with ankle and knee injuries. Right tackle Todd Weiner, who was sidelined two straight games with a sprained ankle, took limited snaps against San Francisco, but Petrino will wait until later this week to determine his availability.
Petrino also isn't clear on when quarterback Byron Leftwich might return from ankle surgery. Joey Harrington, whom Petrino benched after an abysmal Week 6 loss to the New York Giants, completed 14 of 25 passes for just 138 yards, no touchdowns and an interception.
But the Falcons' defense, led by linebacker Michael Boley, right end John Abraham, safety Lawyer Milloy and cornerbacks DeAngelo Hall and Jimmy Williams, forced San Francisco quarterback Alex Smith into four second-half turnovers.
'We have taken care of the ball, and the turnovers have started to come our way,' Petrino said. 'Until you can make big plays and consistently run the football, it's going to come down to the fourth quarter. We've been there a lot, and hopefully we'll continue what we did the other day and win in the fourth quarter.'
Thanks to a pair of field goals by Morten Andersen, the Falcons outscored the 49ers in the final period, but Atlanta has shown little aptitude to generate offense in the second half.
Opponents have combined to score 94 points to the Falcons' 31 after halftime. In his first year as coach, Petrino doesn't need a reminder that Atlanta is 0-5 when entering the fourth quarter with a deficit this year.
But the trend is nothing new for the Falcons, who are 1-31 over the last five seasons and winless in 22 tries since the start of 2004 when trailing as they enter the final period.