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Unless they begin playing better on their home field, the Atlanta Falcons could find themselves out of the postseason.
The Falcons look to improve their playoff chances Sunday when they host the reeling Carolina Panthers.
Atlanta is tied with the New York Giants for sixth in the NFC at 7-7, a game behind Philadelphia. However, the Falcons lost to the Giants on Oct. 15, giving New York the potential tiebreaker for the final wild-card spot.
New Orleans clinched the NFC South last weekend, meaning the Falcons—and Panthers—must earn one of the NFC’s two wild cards to reach the playoffs.
“There are so many playoff scenarios that are confusing, but Dallas, Philadelphia, the Giants and us basically vying for three spots, so it’s going to come down to the very end,” Atlanta coach Jim Mora said. “If we do that, you never know what will happen, and you never know what will happen if you end up getting in the tournament. So that will be our focus.”
A loss this weekend would not necessarily knock the Falcons out of the postseason hunt, provided the Giants and Eagles also lose. However, Atlanta will most likely need to end its home woes on Sunday to have a realistic shot to continue playing into January.
The Falcons have lost three in a row at home for the first time since a six-game slide in 2003. They are just 3-4 at the Georgia Dome this season, and are 1-6 on their home field in November and December over the last two years.
“If you look at all the teams that have won Super Bowls and played in Super Bowls, guys have excelled in November and December,” running back Warrick Dunn said. “And if you can do that, you put yourself in a real good situation. We just haven’t done that.”
The Falcons put themselves in a much more difficult spot with last weekend’s 38-28 home loss to the Cowboys.
“What we have to do is get over it and get to Carolina,” Mora said. “That’s what we are going to do. We are going to lick our wounds and we’re going to come back strong.”
Quarterback Michael Vick tied a career high with four touchdown passes against Dallas and has 990 rushing yards this season, surpassing Bobby Douglass’ 34-year-old record for most by a quarterback.
“It means a lot. It’s everything I’ve worked for in my career,” Vick said. “I’m disappointed that we didn’t get the win, but it’s a milestone.”
Vick limped off the field with a groin injury on Atlanta’s final possession but Mora expects him to start against the Panthers. Mora also believes that defensive end John Abraham, who underwent surgery Monday after tearing ligaments in his left thumb against the Cowboys, will play.
“Our guys are resilient,” Mora said. “They bounce back. They get refocused. I am excited to get back to work on Wednesday.”
The Falcons lead the NFL with 192.6 rushing yards per game, but are averaging a league-worst 147.0 passing yards.
Dunn ran for 132 yards in Atlanta’s 20-6 victory over the Panthers in Week 1, while Abraham earned his first NFC defensive player of the week honor with five solo tackles, two sacks, two forced fumbles and a pass breakup.
The Panthers were without star receiver Steve Smith, who was nursing a strained hamstring, and quarterback Jake Delhomme threw for 186 yards, no scores and an interception. Smith will be playing this time, but Delhomme has missed the last two games because of ligament damage in his throwing hand and is doubtful.
Chris Weinke has thrown one touchdown pass and four interceptions in place of Delhomme, falling to 1-16 in his career as a starter.
Mathematically, the 6-8 Panthers have not been eliminated from the playoff race. However, a four-game losing streak, including Sunday’s embarrassing 37-3 home loss to Pittsburgh, has all but ruined a once-promising season.
“We’re 3-1 in our division. Finishing strong I think helps,” Carolina coach John Fox said. “We are attacking this one, just one at a time, against Atlanta. They got us the first time here, and we’ve got an opportunity to go there and take care of business.”
Weinke was sacked five times Sunday behind an offensive line missing guard Mike Wahle. Wahle, who will undergo surgery within the next week to repair a torn labrum in his right shoulder, has been placed on injured reserve, joining right tackle Travelle Wharton (knee) and center Justin Hartwig (groin) as out for the season.
Defensive end Mike Rucker suffered a torn ACL in his left knee and will also miss the rest of the season. His absence is bad news for a defense that has allowed 100 yards rushing in seven of its eight losses this season.
Defensive end Julius Peppers, who had 11 sacks in the first eight games, has not recorded one in the last five. And on offense, the Panthers have picked up just 88 rushing yards combined in their last two games.
“It’s embarrassing. I feel bad for our owner, obviously, to have paid for the talent we displayed on the field,” wdie receiver Keyshawn Johnson said.