The 49ers have reached the quarter pole of the 2001 season tied with two other teams for the second-best record in the NFC. But coach Steve Mariucci is taking it all in stride after his team improved to 3-1 on Sunday night with a 24-14 victory over the Carolina Panthers. He knows better than to get ahead of himself at this juncture.

"It's nice to be 3-1," Mariucci said Monday. "It's been a while since we've been 3-1. If I'm not mistaken, it was 1999 when we were (last) 3-1. Then, after that, we hit a little skid." Make that a big skid. One from which the Niners are just now starting to recover.

After starting 3-1 in 1999, San Francisco's 20-year dynasty suddenly crashed with an eight-game losing streak. The Niners lost 11 of their final 12 games that season to finish 4-12, and that sort of losing carried over to last season, when they started 2-8.

"We lost 19 out of 22 games after that (3-1 start in '99)," Mariucci said. "It was rough sledding for a while. So it's been a long time since we enjoyed a 3-1 run at any point in the season. So hopefully, we can try and build on it."

The next step is Sunday's divisional game against Atlanta in the Georgia Dome, which gives the Niners a prime opportunity to stretch their winning streak to three games and take a 4-1 record into their bye week, which follows the Atlanta game. The quick start - San Francisco would be the No. 4 seed in the NFC playoffs if they were to begin today - has given the Niners a taste of success they never enjoyed last season. But they're hardly satisfied.

 "I think we're somewhat pleased with the record," Mariucci said. "Obviously, you go into every game trying to win it. We'd prefer to be 4-0, and that statement is not unrealistic, because we had a chance to beat the Rams (in a 30-26 loss), we really did. I don't know that you'll find anybody that's overly satisfied with where we are and how we've played. We enjoy being 3-1, because there's not a lot of teams that are better than that right now. But we've got a lot of improving to do."

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