Carolina, seeking its second consecutive 3-0 start, hopes to avenge a pair of ugly losses to Atlanta when the NFC South rivals meet at Ericsson Stadium.
It’s easy to forget that the Panthers began 2002 with three straight wins because they followed that with an eight-game losing streak before finishing with four wins in five games. Carolina has picked up where it left off last season, posting wins this year over Jacksonville and Tampa Bay.
The Panthers were off last week following a stunning 12-9 victory in overtime against the defending champion Buccaneers on Sept. 14. In that game, Carolina blocked three kicks, including an extra point with no time left in regulation, and John Kasay kicked a 47-yard field goal with 3:28 left in overtime.
Two of the defeats during Carolina’s eight-game skid came to the Falcons by a combined 71-0 score. Atlanta became the first team to shut out an opponent twice in the same season since Denver did it to San Diego in 1976.
“I think we played well in just about every game last year except for those two Atlanta games,” Carolina’s Musin Muhammad said. “They played harder than us. They played better than us. We weren’t able to contain Mike Vick. We have to take care of those things.”
In those two games, Vick was 35-of-46 for 442 yards and two touchdowns. He also rushed for 111 yards and a TD.
Carolina, however, won’t have to worry about Vick on Sunday because the Falcons’ quarterback has yet to play this season and will miss at least two more weeks as he recovers from a broken right leg. Backup Doug Johnson has struggled to fill Vick’s shoes.
Johnson has thrown six of Atlanta’s NFL-leading seven interceptions and managed just 95 yards passing in Sunday’s 31-10 loss to Tampa Bay.
“It’s a long season. You can’t dwell on one game,” Johnson said. “We’ve got 13 more.”
Atlanta coach Dan Reeves wants to see his quarterback make smarter decisions.
“The right decision, not taking a chance and throwing the ball and having an interception,” Reeves said. “We’ve had seven interceptions in three games. We can’t afford to do that. We’ve got to make teams earn what they get, and then we have a chance.”
Because Johnson isn’t as the athlete that Vick is, the Falcons need contributions from other sources to be successful. Against Tampa Bay, running backs Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and Justin Griffith combined for only 29 yards.
While the Falcons are looking to rebound from two straight losses, the Panthers are hoping to avoid the problems they encountered after last season’s strong start.
Coach John Fox addressed the team about handling success the same way they have handled adversity, and the five team captains met separately this week to plan their own course of action.
“We just wanted, as captains, to make sure we keep everybody grounded,” defensive end Brentson Buckner said. “Right now, the city is in a real buzz because we beat the defending champions. But it was only the second game of the year. We’ve got 14 more to go.”
The addition of running back Stephen Davis has provided a huge lift for Carolina’s offense.
Davis, the NFL offensive player of the week after the win over Tampa Bay, ranked second in the NFL with 253 yards rushing after two games.
Quarterback Jake Delhomme struggled in the win over the Buccaneers, completing just nine passes for 96 yards, no TDs and two interceptions.
Still adjusting to his role as a starter, Delhomme doesn’t care about his numbers.
“All that matters is the wins and losses,” he said.
STANDINGS: Falcons - 3rd place (tied), NFC South. Panthers - 1st place, NFC South.
FALCONS LEADERS: Offense - Johnson, 520 passing yards and 4 passing TDs; Dunn, 110 rushing yards; Duckett, 2 rushing TDs; Alge Crumpler, 12 receptions, 179 receiving yards and 2 receiving TDs. Defense - Travis Hall and Ellis Johnson, 2 sacks; Keion Carpenter, 1 interception.
PANTHERS LEADERS: Offense - Delhomme, 218 passing yards and 3 passing TDs; Davis, 253 rushing yards; no rushing TDs; Steve Smith, 7 receptions; Muhammad, 74 receiving yards; Smith, Muhammad and Ricky Proehl, 1 receiving TD. Defense - Mike Rucker, 3 sacks; Al Wallace, 1 interception.
FALCONS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 75.3 yards per game (25th in NFL); Passing Offense - 170.3 ypg (25th); Total Offense - 245.7 ypg (29th). Rushing Defense - 135.3 ypg (26th); Passing Defense - 249.3 ypg (29th); Total Defense - 384.7 ypg (29th).
PANTHERS TEAM RANK: Rushing Offense - 146.5 yards per game (5th); Passing Offense - 103.5 ypg (30th); Total Offense - 250.0 ypg (28th). Rushing Defense - 67.5 ypg (4th); Passing Defense - 296.5 ypg (31st); Total Defense - 364.0 ypg (27th).
LAST MEETING: Nov. 24; Falcons, 41-0. At Charlotte, N.C., Vick passed for 272 yards and two TDs while the Atlanta defense had eight sacks and forced six turnovers.
STREAKS AND NOTES: Falcons - Dan Reeves needs one win to become sixth coach in NFL history with 200. … TE Crumpler leads NFL tight ends with 179 yards receiving. … Atlanta has six TDs in 10 trips inside the 20 this season. Panthers - RB Davis is trying to become the first player in franchise history with three straight 100-yard rushing games to start the season. … Carolina’s average drive start at the 34.5-yard line is the second-best in the NFL … The Panthers already have blocked five kicks this season after blocking just 11 from 1995-02.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Falcons - 1-0 on the road; Panthers - 1-0 at home.
INJURIES: Falcons - OUT: QB Vick (leg). DOUBTFUL: WR Brian Finneran (hand); LB Sam Rogers (knee). PROBABLE: G Travis Claridge (shoulder); WR LaTarence Dunbar (groin); DT Johnson (shoulder); TE Brian Kozlowski (calf); CB Tod McBride (thumb); S Gerald McBurrows (neck); S Kevin McCadam (hamstring). Panthers - QUESTIONABLE: LB Mike Caldwell (knee). PROBABLE: LB Dan Morgan (hamstring).