With a strong performance from their unproven defense in the season opener, the Atlanta Falcons appear poised to return to the playoffs.
The defending NFC South champion Carolina Panthers made no such statement in their first game.
The Falcons look to build on last week’s victory and continue their success at the Georgia Dome on Sunday against the Panthers, who are hoping Jake Delhomme(notes) can bounce back from a humiliating outing.
The Falcons picked up where they left off a year ago with Sunday’s 19-7 victory over Miami, improving to 8-1 at home since the start of last season.
Gonzalez had quite a debut, catching a team-high five passes for 73 yards and becoming the 21st player in NFL history with 11,000 yards receiving.
Atlanta’s defense also made a significant impact.
That unit was highly suspect after letting go of five starters and looking shaky during the preseason, but the defense came up with four turnovers and four sacks—and within 3:22 of a shutout. The Falcons forced 18 turnovers in all of 2008, tied for third-worst in the league.
“I thought we were attacking the ball as well as we have since we’ve been here,” second-year Atlanta coach Mike Smith(notes) said. “I think it was evident by the turnovers, with the ball being on the ground.”
The Falcons’ suddenly swarming defense could make things tough for a Carolina team that finished with a team-record seven turnovers in its opener.
Delhomme was benched in the third quarter of last Sunday’s 38-10 loss to Philadelphia after throwing four interceptions and losing a fumble.
Delhomme, who went 7 of 17 for 73 yards, was pressured all game, but still wasn’t making good throws and decisions. His turnovers Sunday led to 24 Eagles points, and coach John Fox pulled him after he threw consecutive interceptions in the third quarter.
It was Delhomme’s first game since throwing five interceptions and losing a fumble in Carolina’s 33-13 divisional playoff loss to Arizona in January.
“I think you go through stretches where maybe you’re not seeing the field as well as you’d like,” said Delhomme, who signed a five-year, $42.5 million contract extension in April. “I think that happens during the course of a season. … But these two, they were separated by a bunch of time. For whatever reason, those are the cards that have been dealt.”
Despite committing 11 turnovers in his last 22 possessions, Delhomme will start at the Georgia Dome, in part because the team doesn’t have any other good options.
Backup Josh McCown(notes) was placed on injured reserve Monday after injuring his left foot and knee in relief of Delhomme, and third-string quarterback Matt Moore(notes) doesn’t have the experience. The Panthers signed veteran quarterback A.J. Feeley(notes) on Monday, but he won’t be ready.
Although Delhomme led Carolina to a Super Bowl in 2003, this could be one of the most important games of his career.
“I’d like to erase any doubts,” said Delhomme, who threw for 589 yards and three touchdowns with no turnovers in two games against Atlanta last season.
Delhomme’s tendency for turning the ball over isn’t the only problem the Panthers have, though.
The Pro Bowler didn’t have much luck against the Dolphins, gaining 65 yards on 22 carries, but he had no trouble running through the Panthers defense in their last meeting. Turner, who finished second in the NFL with 1,699 yards rushing last season and set a team record with 17 touchdowns, ran for 117 yards and a career-high four TDs in Atlanta’s 45-28 home win over Carolina on Nov. 23.
In the other meeting between these division rivals last season, the Panthers defeated the Falcons 24-9 on Sept. 28 behind Delhomme’s 294 passing yards and two touchdowns.