As the New England Patriots found out a week ago, San Francisco is much improved and should not be taken lightly. It's a point that Atlanta's Leeman Bennett will try to drive home to his players as the Falcons prepare for this weekend's date with the Niners.

San Francisco, fully recovered from the doldrums that threatened to ruin the remainder of a season that had started so pleasantly, has again won three straight and will offer a challenge to both the Falcons and the Buffalo Bills, two playoff-bound teams the Niners will encounter as the season closes.

The San Francisco defense has improved, even though the secondary was again bombed by Archie Manning last week. While the Bills and the Falcons have more than enough offensive potential to overwhelm the Niners, Bill Walsh and his club must be accorded respect. Atlanta by 11.

An early look at this weekend's NFL matchups:

(Saturday) Washington six over N.Y. Giants, San Diego 11 over Seattle. (Sunday) Pittsburgh seven over Kansas City, Houston seven over Green Bay, Atlanta 11 over San Francisco, Philadelphia nine over St. Louis, New England three over Buffalo, N.Y. Jets six over New Orleans, Chicago seven over Cincinnati, Cleveland two over Minnesota, Detroit six over Tampa Bay, Oakland one over Denver, Baltimore three over Miami. (Monday, Dec. 15) Los Angeles one over Dallas.