While Atlanta's victory over Houston was a much-needed salve for an 0-3 start and an offseason beyond anyone's imagination, there is a tempered enthusiasm among players and coaches that Karma is about to break in their favor.
"We've had a little different mood than we've had in past weeks," coach Bobby Petrino said Wednesday. "We did need a win, no question about it," coach Bobby Petrino said. "We've put a lot of work into it.
"We were close a couple times but didn't get it done. It made work a lot better on Monday and Tuesday. You can see smiles on some players' faces, and that's good. We have to build from the positives that we did during the game and we'll have a better chance of winning the game."
The Falcons face the Titans (2-1) in Tennessee Sunday.
Much of the optimism stems from an offense that has scored 46 points the past two weeks and racked up 746 yards. The system installed by Petrino and offensive coordinator Hue Jackson is maturing and is very difficult to defend because of the multitude of options on every pass play.
The running game has yet to become much of a threat, although Petrino stuck with it for most of the last game despite having marginal, at-best, success.
Key has been the play of the offensive line, which has been very solid in protection and has been much more aware of the blitz schemes that caused major problems in the first two games. Rookie guard Justin Blalock took a dubious baptism to the NFL against Minnesota and Jacksonville and bounced back better for it.
Also fueling some hope -- that's something that seemed at least a year off about a week ago -- if the wayward way the teams in the NFC South have taken.
The Saints are winless. Carolina is 2-2 but might be saddled with David Carr as its starting quarterback for the foreseeable future. Division leader Tampa Bay (3-1) has a good thing going, but injuries to RB Cadillac Williams and tackle Luke Petitgout could provide enough of a hiccup for Atlanta to make some headway -- if it can generate some momentum by beating the Titans.
The Falcons also are on the verge of getting much healthier. Backup tight end Dwayne Blakley (pectoral) could return Sunday after missing the past two games to factor back into the passing game. Defensive tackles Rod Coleman and Jonathan Babineaux (knees) are expected back within the next two weeks.
"It's not a one-week season," quarterback Joey Harrington said. "The teams that end up in the playoffs are the ones that can sustain that success week to week."
To interject, that is one of the first playoff mentions since Petrino took over Jan. 8.
Harrington: "This is what we need to learn how to do. The one thing I'm very encouraged about is the steps forward we make every week. If we continue on the pattern, we will be fine over the next couple of weeks. However, it is not something that is going to magically show up. It is something we need to continue to work at and I think guys are very focused on doing that."
12th meeting. Tennessee leads series, 6-5. The Titans won the last meeting, 38-31, at the Georgia Dome in 2003 after being down 21-0 in the first quarter. Quarterback Billy Volek connected with Justin McCareins on a 14-yard touchdown pass to give Tennessee a 38-24 lead with 7:39 remaining.
Falcons defensive back Antoine Harris was signed last spring after playing for the Titans in 2005-2006.
Billy Volek led Tennessee's 21-point rally after starting QB Steve McNair had to leave the 38-31 victory in 2003 with a calf strain. Neither McNair (Baltimore) nor Volek (San Diego) remain with Tennessee.
The Titans are Atlanta's last AFC opponent until a Thanksgiving night game vs. Indianapolis.
Warrick Dunn rushed for just 14 yards but caught nine passes for 129 yards vs. Tennessee in 2003. He has not rushed for more than 62 yards in a game this season.
"Vince is really trying to become a pocket passer. He really hasn't taken off to run as much as he did a year ago." -- Falcons coach Bobby Petrino, on Titans QB Vince Young.
BY THE NUMBERS
121.7 -- Joey Harrington's passer rating following last Sunday's 26-16 victory over Houston. It's the third highest of Harrington's career. Harrington completed 23 of 29 passes for 223 yards and two touchdowns with no interceptions.
QUOTE TO NOTE
"There were a couple times in camp where you're going to hit bumps, you're going to hit a stretch where you don't play very well. There were a couple times we did that in camp, early on, and we seemed to let it bother us, to bog us down. What I tried to relay to everybody, especially the young guys, is that every single player is going to have times when things are not going to go right.
"The players that are remembered and the teams that win games, the people who are successful are the ones who are able to push through it. Not let it distract them from that they're trying to do. (Pause)... I lost my train of thought. I started thinking about M&Ms. I ate some M&M's before I got up here." -- Quarterback Joey Harrington, spacing out while relating his travails to Atlanta's once-maligned receiving corps.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
Rookie WR Laurent Robinson and veteran WR Joe Horn have been lying in the weeds somewhat while Roddy White and Michael Jenkins have been racking up big yards on the edges. This could be the game that one, or both, could be factors.
White is going to start to receive more double coverage and Jenkins is more of a threat on third down.
Horn, meanwhile, could be able to get going early with some hitch or quick routes that could draw attention his way and allow Robinson to eventually get free downfield, where he is a major threat.
The Falcons have had a lot of success with their four-wide set and if Robinson is lined up outside, he's been able to get open, particularly near the sideline. Robinson and Horn could have to make plays after the catch because the Titans get after the quarterback with their solid front.
PLAYER PERSONNEL NOTES
LS Mike Schneck, who has played in 124 games since 1999 with the Steelers and Bills, was signed Tuesday to replace Boone Stutz. No reason was given but Stutz was off target on a handful of field-goal attempt snaps.
DT Rod Coleman returned to practice for the first time during the regular season. Coleman had right knee surgery on Sept. 7 and Wednesday, he acknowledged he sustained a broken kneecap. The Falcons said then and Wednesday that Coleman's surgery was an arthroscopic procedure to remove debris and repair damage. The team did not deny or confirm the fractured kneecap.
Coleman's availability for Sunday's game at Tennessee remains uncertain but he said he thinks he could be ready to play. Bobby Petrino said he was "nervous" about playing Coleman after just two or three practices, especially since Coleman was on track to open the regular season after springtime thigh surgery before he suffered the knee injury.
Coleman's backup, DT Jonathan Babineaux (stretched right knee ligament), has not practiced this week and is questionable for Sunday's game with the Titans. If Babineaux can't play, rookie Trey Lewis would start. Defensive line coach Kevin Wolthausen said Lewis played well in his first start vs. Houston last week but there were times when he seemed a little overwhelmed with the enormity of things.
Wolthausen said Lewis' penetration with his pass rush has been impressive and once he settles in and becomes less wide-eyed, he should be a consistently effective player.
P Michael Koenen is averaging 43.4 yards a punt, more than a yard better than his career average. Koenen had been bothered by a lower back problem for more than a year but he has recovered and is at full strength.
DE John Abraham, who has four sacks and has been as disruptive as ever, said he has never felt healthier than he does now. He has felt no discomfort in his problematic groin (three operations) and said the coaching staff is not overworking him in practice, which has allowed him to remain fresh on game day.
The Falcons are making no bones about their need to establish some semblance of a running game. That's tough sledding against a foe that's allowed just 64 yards on the ground in three games and that has had two weeks to prepare.
Atlanta is averaging just 89.8 yards a game, which ranks 22nd in the league. Much of the ground attack has been between the tackles, where the Falcons have tried to ram-rod expecting defenses with lead plays or straight dives out of the four-wide, single back set.
To possibly get things going with the run, Atlanta could try to attack Tennessee's edges, most notably with speedster Jerious Norwood, who does not seem to be running with the confidence that he ran with last season as a rookie.
The Falcons could have some success around end by using some motion or an H-back to provide an extra lead block for the tailback. Fullback Ovie Mughelli has been a monster as a lead blocker and he could be the man Atlanta tries to run behind should it go wide.
Success early on in the passing game, especially with some intermediate routes to WR Michael Jenkins and TE Alge Crumpler, could also create some room to run by forcing the Titans to back a safety out of the box.
MATCHUPS TO WATCH
Falcons defensive interior vs. Titans running game. The Titans are going to smash the ball between the tackles, which has been their secret to success and their formula to establish a measurable possession advantage -- 33:25 minutes to 26:35.
Atlanta will have to use SS Lawyer Milloy on some run blitzes but it will have to be careful not to leave space for quarterback Vince Young to break outside containment. MLB Keith Brooking played his best game in awhile against the run vs. Houston because he was more aggressive attacking the line of scrimmage. He will have to attack with even more fervor vs. Tennessee.
Atlanta's wherewithal vs. Tennessee's finishing power. The Titans have outscored Jacksonville, Indianapolis and New Orleans 21-0 in the fourth quarter. The Falcons have been outscored 30-9 in the final period. The Falcons considered their 3-3 draw in the final quarter vs. Houston a victory. The defense was monstrous and came up with a key goal-line stand. However, the offense better either have a nice lead or finally figure out how to score touchdowns down the stretch to emerge victorious.
If Coleman and Babineaux (knees) can't play and Brooking can't go at full speed because of a minor hamstring tweak, Atlanta could be prone up the gut. Rookie Trey Lewis has been solid thus far and NTs Grady Jackson and Montavious Stanley have done a fairly adequate job. Coleman and Babineaux are better pass rushers, however, depth and stamina, especially the way the Titans finish games, could prove to be a concern.