NFC South Hot Topic: Oct. 1

Want to get the inside scoop on the Falcons, the Panthers and the Saints after Week 4? Here's the Hop Topic, complete with inside news and analysis from Sunday's games.

ATLANTA FALCONS

Falcons players and coaches held a firm facade for months, claiming that they mentally were able to handle all the distractions involving Michael Vick, the 0-3 start, and, most recently, the public spat involving cornerback DeAngelo Hall and coach Bobby Petrino.

After earning their first victory of the season, a 26-16 triumph over Houston and former Atlanta backup quarterback Matt Schaub, there was widespread acknowledgement of the hell this team has gone through.

"We have been fighting through adversity all year long and the team has played hard, practiced hard and prepared hard," said Petrino. "It paid off today and it was a good feeling."

Said tight end Alge Crumpler, "It's important for us to get used to winning. It's important for us to learn how to win and get used to that winning feeling. Not to take anything for granted and expect to win when we take the field on Sunday. After all we've been through, it never felt like an 0-3 locker room. Guys were really stressing togetherness and putting things together."

Added linebacker Keith Brooking, "It's just great to get that losing taste out of our mouths. It's been a long four weeks but we found a way to win today and play four full quarters. Defensively and offensively we made plays. It was just a total team effort, a great feeling."

Though several of the team's longtime veterans exhaled, nobody might have been happier than quarterback Joey Harrington, who steadily has improved in Petrino's quarterback-friendly system.

Harrington completed 23 of 29 passes for 223 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. It was his third straight game without a turnover and he has completed roughly 70 percent of his 125 attempts. Petrino's quarterbacks historically have generated similar completion marks and Harrington seems to be falling in line.

His decision-making has been more authoritative than it was the first two weeks, when he was sacked 13 times.

Making his most recent effort even more rewarding is that it came against Houston's Matt Schaub, who many Falcons followers feel the team wrongly traded last March, especially in hindsight of Vick's problems that led to his indefinite suspension.

"We've improved from week-to-week," Harrington said. "These are noticeable improvements because you can look at Game 1 and Game 4 and see our progress. This is what we have to do on a continual basis and not take it into next week against Tennessee."

Said Houston safety Will Demps: "It's kind of weird coming here and not playing against Vick, who is more of a runner. Harrington, he's a step up in the pocket kind of quarterback. I have to hand it to him, he made the plays they needed to make."

Added Texans defensive tackle Jeff Zgonina: "Joey is a darn good quarterback. All the talk about him is crazy. I played with him in Miami and when Joey gets hot, he is a very good quarterback."

PLAYER NOTES

CB DeAngelo Hall was benched for the first quarter of Sunday's victory over Houston, but he entered in the second period and played the final three quarters. Hall replaced rookie Chris Houston in the middle of a drive during a quarter change. Hall was benched for a sideline outburst following three penalties on one drive in a loss to Carolina last week. The Texans and their depleted receiving corps did not challenge Hall, who finished with one tackle. Hall, who was also fined $100,000, a punishment that he has appealed, was unavailable for comment after the game. Coach Bobby Petrino said the issue is history. "I'm really satisfied that's behind us," Petrino said. "It's good that he got in after the first quarter. I'm sure we're going to see on video that he played well. The best part is we both walked into the locker room and we both had big smiles on our faces."

OLB Michael Boley continues to make his case as not only the Falcons' best defensive player, but the team's best overall player. The rangy strong-side backer had nine tackles -- that figure almost certainly will increase after film review -- and he forced a fumble. Boley is so athletic that at one point the former coaching staff considered using Boley as a safety. Instead, they moved him between outside linebacker and rush end.

WR Michael Jenkins, a 2004 first-round pick, has steadily increased his production and against Houston, he had his first multi-touchdown game (two catches) and nabbed a team-high six passes for 64 yards. "I feel real comfortable with the role Michael is playing for us," coach Bobby Petrino said. "We consider him a starter. He's playing the slot receiver. He gets good matchups. It's usually the other team's nickel guy or third or fourth cover guy so he's got good matchups in there. He's really taking advantage of them. The confidence between him and Joey (Harrington) is high right now."

WR Joe Horn has yet to establish himself as much of a factor. Horn has just seven catches for 48 yards with a long of 12.

DE John Abraham is starting to dial things up. He has his fourth sack and second forced fumble of the season against Houston and could have had several more had he not been held so frequently by Ephraim Salaam. Abraham was furious that Salaam was flagged just once during the game, but that infraction came when the Texans were on Atlanta's three and moved Houston back to the 13.

Falcons owner Arthur Blank awarded Petrino the game ball for the Falcons' victory.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Several Saints have seen what an 0-3 start can do to an NFL team, but they saw no signs of it in the aftermath of the team's 31-14 loss to the Tennessee Titans on Monday night.

The Saints' first 0-3 start since 1997 -- Mike Ditka's first-season of an ill-fated three-year tenure -- has left media and fans searching for answers along with the players and coaches.

According to left guard Jamar Nesbit, a 10-year NFL veteran, searching for answers and solutions is one thing; trying to assign blame for the problems is another thing altogether.

"I've been on teams in the past that had this happen to them," Nesbit said. "There has been a lot of in-fighting, finger-pointing, that sort of stuff (on those teams). That's not happening here.

"Everybody is pulling each other up and trying to figure out answers," he added. "That's one positive coming out of this whole thing. Everybody is keeping everybody else together."

Being winless was the last thing the Saints expected going into their bye week, so many of the players were in a state of shock -- especially after losing running back Deuce McAllister to a torn ACL in his left knee and cornerback Jason David for 4-to-6 weeks with a fractured forearm.

So a bye week may be just what the doctor ordered, Saints coach Sean Payton said, for everyone concerned. Getting a chance to step away and take a deep breath could be a key to keeping everyone together.

"Having that core conviction of guys who are team players and understand how to work through tough times and not point fingers, I think we've got that," Payton said. "That's the thing that makes it good to come to work. There's a lot of hard work ahead still."

PLAYER NOTES

RB Deuce McAllister will have surgery to repair a torn ACL in his left knee, which will sideline him for the remainder of the season.

RCB Jason David had surgery last week to attach a plate to his fractured left forearm. He'll likely be sidelined from 4-to-6 weeks.

LT Jammal Brown dislocated a finger in the Saints' loss to the Tennessee Titans, but should be ready for the Carolina Panthers game.

SLB Scott Fujita sprained his ankle against the Titans, but is expected to be back in time for the game with the Panthers.

DT Kendrick Clancy was inactive for the Titans game because of a right turf toe injury and it's unknown if he'll be ready for the Panthers game.

S Jay Bellamy, who had been released before the Titans game, was re-signed to take Deuce McAllister's roster spot.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

Just four games into the season, the Panthers find themselves at a crossroads.

After blowing an opportunity to take control of the NFC South this past Sunday by losing 20-7 at home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the Panthers (2-2) now find themselves in a difficult position -- and possibly without starting quarterback Jake Delhomme for awhile.

Carolina has road games coming up against New Orleans and Arizona, and if they play like they did on Sunday they will no doubt be 2-4 entering a game with the Indianapolis Colts.

"As a team, collectively, we have no heart, we have no energy, we have no drive," said Panthers defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. "Football is about pride and passion. I'm going to repeat that again -- football is about pride and passion.

"The pride and the passion that you have for this game makes you want to win. It's not about the money. It's not about looking the part. It's not about standing on the field so everybody can see you on TV and you look good. It's about pride and passion. If you have those two, if you win or if you lose, you're going to look like a football team."

The Panthers didn't look much like a football team Sunday.

It took 15 minutes for Carolina to fall behind 14-0 and for the boo birds to voice their displeasure with the Panthers, who have now lost their last four home games by a combined margin of 118-44.

Things may only get worse before they get better.

In a complete contradiction of what he told the local media earlier in the week, coach John Fox said after the game that Delhomme may need surgery on his throwing elbow.

"There is an option that he could have surgery," Fox said. "I can't tell him what he's going to have. It's his arm and it's his body. But that is a possibility."

Delhomme will need surgery at some point -- either this season or after the season. Fox said if Delhomme does have surgery it will cost him a good portion of the season.

"I would say it would thwart the majority of it," Fox said.

Fox said the Panthers are taking the situation on a day-to-day basis.

He also said it's possible the team could sign a quarterback next week to backup David Carr. The only other healthy quarterback on the roster is undrafted rookie Matt Moore.

"We'll evaluate that as we go," Fox said. "We will look at the tape and see how Jake is tomorrow and come Wednesday when he comes around. I can't really lock into any certain thing as far as that is concerned."

That means Carr, who had just 40 yards passing after three quarters against the Bucs, had better shake the rust off his game pretty quick.

"Definitely (there was) some rust," said Carr, who has never led his team to a winning season since joining the NFL in 2002. "I don't know if it was just me, but going with the new group I definitely could have felt better. That's going to come working with the guys and knowing where (Steve Smith) is going to be and other guys are going to be running their routes. That comes with time. I just wish we could have knocked some of that rust off faster and given our defense a chance."

Jenkins called Sunday's effort embarrassing.

"It's hard to sit in week after week and go through this," Jenkins said. "This is what's not being addressed. Week-in and week-out, we might say this, we might say that. We need to change this. Oh, this looks this way. It's not that."

PLAYER NOTES

RB DeShaun Foster ran for 64 yards, but fumbled twice and dropped two passes on Sunday against the Bucs.

QB Jake Delhomme did not play. He may need surgery, and if he does go that way he could miss significant time.

LB James Anderson filled in for Dan Morgan on Sunday and the Panthers really struggled to make a stop on defense in the first quarter.

QB David Carr was horrendous is his debut with the Panthers. He wound up throwing for 150 yards, but 69 of those came on the final drive. Carr was sacked three times. The offensive line did not play well.

WR Dwayne Jarrett, a second-round pick out of USC, saw his first action and played a handful of plays. He caught one pass for six yards.

DE Julius Peppers is off to a quiet start this season with no sacks through four games.

WR Steve Smith was held in check for a second straight week. He didn't appear to be on the same page with David Carr. Through three quarters, he caught just two passes for five yards.

KR Nick Goings suffered a concussion and left Sunday's game.


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