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Promoted backup QB Blaine Gabbert throws pair of TD passes to Celek, 49ers beat Falcons 17-16


SANTA CLARA, California — Blaine Gabbert led the San Francisco 49ers to a rare win, then left Levi's Stadium unsure if he has earned himself another start.

Even with demoted Colin Kaepernick having been downright awful in recent years against the next opponent, rival Seattle.

Gabbert of all people gave the Niners a big lift in a lost season, throwing a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes to tight end Garrett Celek, and undermanned San Francisco beat the Atlanta Falcons 17-16 on Sunday.

"I'm not commenting on it. I'm not going to get into it, because I'm going to go back and watch tape," coach Jim Tomsula said. "Blaine had a great day today."

A first-round bust in Jacksonville, Gabbert made his first start in more than two years and exhibited the poise and production demoted starter Kaepernick lacked all year.

San Francisco (3-6) heads into the bye on a winning note after a week of change.

Making his first start since Week 5 of 2013 for the Jaguars, Gabbert didn't take a sack as he was able to quickly get the ball out behind an offensive line that has faced heavy scrutiny all year.

"All I know is we got the victory today, we've got a bye week coming up and we're going to prepare for Seattle. That's our next game up there, so whatever 11 guys we march out on the field we're going to go up there and expect a victory," Gabbert said in almost the perfect, seemingly rehearsed response. He then added, "I consider myself a smart guy, so I can form my own words. It was wonderful, I'm so appreciative of this opportunity."

Celek made TD catches of 1 and 11 yards to give him three on the year. San Francisco's stout defense flustered Matt Ryan despite the patchwork use of backups because of a rash of injuries. It sure seemed the reeling 49ers were at a bigger disadvantage than the 4 1/2-point underdogs they were to begin the week, when tight end Vernon Davis got traded to Denver.

PHOTO: San Francisco 49ers tight end Garrett Celek (88) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass with tight end Vance McDonald (89) against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)
San Francisco 49ers tight end Garrett Celek (88) celebrates after catching a touchdown pass with tight end Vance McDonald (89) against the Atlanta Falcons during the first half of an NFL football game in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Ben Margot)

Gabbert threw an interception midway through the fourth quarter, giving Atlanta (6-3) another chance with 7:14 to go. After an incompletion, Ryan hit six straight throws, but eventually missed Julio Jones in the end zone. Atlanta opted not to go for it on fourth-and-goal from the 1, kicking a field goal, then falling just short.

"I thought we would get the kick, get the stop defensively, then use our timeouts and go attack on offense," coach Dan Quinn said. "We're a really good two-minute offense. ... I felt like we were stopping them defensively and could do it again and go win that way."

Kaepernick watched it all from the sideline until he was needed early in the fourth quarter for two plays that gained no yards. Gabbert took a hard blow to the head from linebacker Philip Wheeler and came out to be checked for a concussion.

Jones had 10 catches for 137 yards, and his 18-yard reception in the third period put him over 1,000 yards for the second straight season. But the Falcons lost for the third time in four games following a 5-0 start, with their first two-game skid of 2015.

Ryan completed a 54-yard pass to wide-open Jones late in the first half, then Devonta Freeman caught a 17-yard score two plays later to pull Atlanta within 17-13 at halftime. Ryan completed all three passes that drive.

Gabbert ended a 10-game losing streak as a starter since beating Indianapolis on Sept. 23, 2012, improving to 6-22. He went 15 of 25 for 185 yards. The 49ers ended a two-game stretch without a touchdown and they had gone three in the previous five failing to reach the end zone.

Gabbert was missing his top running back and wide receiver, Carlos Hyde and Anquan Boldin. San Francisco played without its top three cornerbacks and started Marcus Cromartie a day after he was promoted from the practice squad to face the fifth-ranked passing offense.

Newcomers Shaun Draughn and Kendall Gaskins shared the running back duties for an injured unit.

Atlanta, the losingest team ever at San Francisco's former home of Candlestick Park, didn't fare much better in its first visit to second-year, $1.3 billion Levi's Stadium — which was only about two-thirds full given the combination of a struggling team and early rain.

NOTES: Atlanta was held to 17 yards rushing. ... Falcons rookie wideout Justin Hardy was active for the second straight week and made four catches for 17 yards in place of Leonard Hankerson, inactive because of a hamstring injury. ... Atlanta nose tackle Paul Soliai suffered a head injury and safety Robenson Therezie injured a hamstring late in the first quarter and didn't return. ... San Francisco FB Bruce Miller had his first carry of the season in the third quarter.

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PHOTO: San Francisco 49ers quarterback Blaine Gabbert (2) celebrates after throwing a touchdown pass to tight end Garrett Celek during the first half of an NFL football game against the Atlanta Falcons in Santa Clara, Calif., Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)
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