SANTA CLARA — Blaine Gabbert of all people gave the San Francisco 49ers a big lift in a lost season.
A first-round bust in Jacksonville, Gabbert made his first start in more than two years and exhibited the poise and production demoted starter Colin Kaepernick lacked all year. Gabbert threw a pair of second-quarter touchdown passes to tight end Garrett Celek, and the undermanned Niners beat the Atlanta Falcons 17-16 on Sunday.
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.
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.
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 kicked a field goal and fell just short.
Kaepernick watched it all from the sideline until he was needed early in the fourth period 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 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.
Kendall Gaskins started at running back eight days after he was called up from the practice squad.
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.
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.