The Falcons have had a few days over the bye weekend to digest the firestorm created by the surprising release of defensive tackle Grady Jackson last Tuesday. The question is, have players moved on?
In terms of preparing for next Sunday's game with San Francisco, the focus should be there. In terms of trusting the coaching staff and management, there could be a gap that's unable to be bridged.
Most of the players on the roster seem to have bought in to new coach Bobby Petrino's system, but his handling of his players, particularly his lack of communication, has caused widespread skepticism about his plan for this season. Since Petrino has the backing of ownership and management, the distrust goes to the top.
Cornerback DeAngelo Hall was the loudest voice speaking out about veteran players' belief that the coaching staff has bagged this season by cutting Jackson and has turned its eye to 2008. However, several other players shared the same sentiments.
Hall said that players will play hard, but their motivation might necessarily be to win games, but more so to win the affections of other teams that might want to pay them if/when they are released or traded in the offseason.
Sometimes individual motivation translates into the overall better health of the team -- in terms of victories. Then again, sometimes it becomes incredibly divisive.
There is time for a miraculous rally -- or at least a competitive one. There also is plenty of time for a disastrous meltdown that would culminate months of unprecedented turmoil that started in April when police found those 66 dogs and dogfighting equipment on Michael Vick's property in Surry County, Va.
--OT Quinn Ojinnaka, who is set to take over at left tackle, said he spent the weekend of his bye week in the film room studying the 49ers. He added that he is out to prove the Falcons wrong for bypassing him on the depth chart when Weiner and Gandy went down. If he can't prove to this staff that he's an NFL player, he'll show potential suitors that he can play.
--Rookie CB David Irons is emerging as the Falcons' top special teams player. The speedster is an ace on coverage teams and has shown the acumen and willingness to do anything the coaching staff asks of him. Irons also has impressed on defense and he could be positioning himself to get some snaps by the end of the season.
--RT Tyson Clabo, who has done a solid job filling in for Todd Weiner, is a much better cut blocker than an inline blocker and teammates said he has found a way to use his chopping skills effectively in the in-line blocking scheme. Clabo, as he proved on a 67-yard touchdown run from Jerious Norwood vs. the Giants, engages his defender long enough to provide room for him to gain leverage and then sweep down at his legs.
--OLB Stephen Nicholas is not expected to play vs. the 49ers because of a high ankle sprain sustained nearly a month ago. Unlike quarterback Byron Leftwich, who opted to have surgery to get back on the field quickly, Nicholas was prescribed a more traditional rehab.
The Panthers hope to steal a page from their 2003 win over the Indianapolis Colts this Sunday.
The Panthers know from experience the best way to beat the high-powered Indianapolis Colts is to keep quarterback Peyton Manning off the football field, and that will mean running the ball and controlling the clock behind DeShaun Foster and DeAngelo Williams.
That's how the Panthers knocked off the then-unbeaten Colts at the RCA Dome on Oct. 12, 2003. Behind Stephen Davis and DeShaun Foster, the Panthers ran 41 times for 189 yards to overcome a 13-3 halftime deficit and beat the Colts 23-20 in overtime.
In that game, the Panthers held more than a 10-minute edge in time of possession.
"From here on out, it's going to be an important part of our game because most of the experience on offense is up front now (on the offensive line)," said offensive tackle Jordan Gross. "We have to eat up the clock with these guys. Their defense is solid. It seems like since the Jacksonville game last year when they got hit hard on the ground, they've really firmed up and looked great. We have to have success on offense if for no other reason than to keep their offense off the field."
Foster is expected to start after returning to practice on Thursday. Williams, who is coming off a career-high 121-yard performance against Arizona a week ago Sunday, will also see a good bit of work.
The Panthers rank ninth in the league in rushing, averaging 132.5 yards per game on the ground and 4.6 yards per carry under new offensive coordinator Jeff Davidson.
The Colts (6-0) are averaging better than 32 points per game this season and have held more than a four-minute advantage over opponents in time of possession.
"When you face a team with an explosive offense like they have, you have to play time-possession with them," said Foster, whose teams are 23-2 record during his career when he carries more than 15 times per game. "We have to keep the ball in our hands."
Of course, that's easier said than done.
Coach Tony Dungy's defense is no slouch.
"There's no doubt this defense is better than the one we faced in 2003," said fullback Brad Hoover.
The Colts rank third in the league, holding opponents to just 269.5 yards per game, including 107.3 on the ground. They've allowed only four rushing touchdowns in six games. Since the return of safety Bob Sanders prior to their Super Bowl run a year ago, the Colts defense is simply playing lights out, although it will never get the same attention as the offense.
The one thing the Panthers might have in their corner is the fact the Colts will be playing their second road game in six days and might get fatigued if the Panthers keep pounding away at their line. Or, perhaps they will catch the Colts looking ahead to what will be a much-hyped matchup next Sunday against AFC rival New England.
--QB Vinny Testaverde will likely be the backup this week.
--RB DeShaun Foster is aiming for his first 1,000-yard season. He can reach the halfway point this Sunday against the Colts.
--WR Steve Smith has not been on the same page with David Carr this year, so it will be interesting to see how he performs this Sunday against the Colts. Smith normally shows up for big games.
--LB Dan Morgan did not practice on Thursday and there's almost no chance he's getting the field this week. You might as well rule him out at least until next week.
--LB Jon Beason will start in the middle again this week.
--LB Adam Seward is likely to be held out of this week's game with a calf injury.
--RB Nick Goings went on IR late Wednesday night. He will be missed on special teams.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
The Saints have had a lot of luck with their offensive line since Sean Payton took over as head coach 24 games ago.
In that span, the Saints had only one game missed because of injury among a starting group that includes center Jeff Faine, tackles Jammal Brown and Jon Stinchcomb, and guards Jamar Nesbit and Jahri Evans. Brown missed one game midway through last season with a sprained ankle.
The Saints will apparently find out Sunday if luck continues. Faine injured his left pectoral muscle in last week's win over the Atlanta Falcons and did not practice Wednesday or Thursday.
Payton said Thursday they won't make a decision until just before their game at San Francisco. At this point, it seems unlikely that Faine will play considering a center's blocking duties including working a lot with his hands and arms up near his chest.
"He has a pectoral strain," Payton said Thursday. "It's pretty sore and it limits you in how much you can move and expand and block. We'll see where he's at."
Faine said Wednesday that he hopes to play Sunday, but Payton said there's nothing they can do to help speed up the healing process.
"There's no surgery, there's no procedure," Payton said. "It is what it is. It will take time to where he feels strong enough in that area."
If Faine can't play, six-year NFL veteran Jonathan Goodwin would get his first start since signing with the Saints as an unrestricted free agent prior to the 2006 season. His backup would likely be left guard Jamar Nesbit.
"Jonathan has played a lot and he is an experienced pro," Payton said, when asked how confident he is in Goodwin. If Jeff is unable to go, we know that we have a capable backup in Jonathan. He has played well in the preseason and he played well last week. He played close to 30 plays (against Atlanta) and did a real good job."
--C Jeff Faine missed a second straight practice Thursday with a left pectoral muscle injury and will likely be a game-time decision, coach Sean Payton said, for Sunday's game at San Francisco.
--C/G Jonathan Goodwin, a six-year veteran, will start in place of Faine if Faine is sidelined for Sunday's game with the 49ers.
--LG Jamar Nesbit, who has played some center in his nine-year NFL career, would likely be the backup center to Goodwin if Faine is inactive Sunday.
--DT Brian Young, who did not practice Wednesday, worked on a limited basis Thursday. He is making progress after having his left knee drained Monday and Wednesday and said he expects to play against the 49ers.
--RCB Jason David again practiced fully Thursday and is full go for the 49ers after missing three games with a fractured left forearm. He'll wear a soft cast to protect the arm, which was surgically repaired on Sept. 25.
--RCB Jason Craft has started the last three games in place of David, but there has been no indication who will start Sunday.