Maybe the perceived threat of being replaced by younger players flipped some switches, but several of Atlanta's veteran players had their best games of the season in Sunday's 20-16 victory over San Francisco.
Tailback Warrick Dunn, who had his first 100-yard game of the season, said his breakout game was because of a combination of good blocking and him feeling healthier than he has felt all season. Safety Lawyer Milloy, who had his first interception of the season and had a key goal-line tackle among his eight stops for the game, said he's simply doing what's being asked of him.
"For so long, this season has just been up and down for me and finally, I'm starting to feel healthy," said Dunn, who had offseason shoulder and back surgery. "Now, I just want to be at the point of playing consistently."
Brooking said getting a win, even if it was over a reeling team, could energize the Falcons, who improved to 2-6.
"Although we've been positive, losing makes you frustrated and disappointed," Brooking said. "It leaves a very bad taste in your mouth. Although we've bounced back every week and worked hard, it was still frustrating to lose."
Though there have been some changes in personnel to younger players -- cornerback Lewis Sanders was replaced by rookie Chris Houston and nose tackle Grady Jackson was cut in favor of rookie Trey Lewis -- the coaching staff opted not to make any more changes coming out of the bye week.
The decision of sticking with the veteran players, especially since the release of Jackson caused so much mistrust by players toward coaches, signaled that the coaching staff wasn't bailing on the season, as some players suggested after Jackson's dismissal.
Jerious Norwood was threatening Dunn, but Dunn showed he's not through, plus Norwood suffered a right ankle injury. Some other veterans, like wide receiver Joe Horn and safety Chris Crocker were being pushed by rookie wide receiver Laurent Robinson and second-year free safety Jimmy Williams, respectively.
There seemingly are no forthcoming changes. However, another loss or two in the next few weeks could change the thinking about the direction the coaching and personnel staffs opt to take.
--TE Alge Crumpler should be ready to play next Sunday at Carolina, but he was held out of the game with the 49ers to further let his problematic left knee and sprained ankle heal. Crumpler went through parts of practice the Friday before the Falcons faced San Francisco and was listed as questionable but the coaching and medical staffs opted to hold him out.
--RB Jerious Norwood suffered a right ankle injury against the 49ers and his playing status for the Panthers is questionable. He initially got hurt early in the game on a carry around left end, then re-aggravated the injury later in the game.
"I'm not sure right now," coach Bobby Petrino said of Norwood's status after the game. "I just know he was not able to return to the game."
--FB Ovie Mughelli isn't expecting an abundance of carries -- he has just four this season -- so he planned on cherishing his first ever rushing touchdown, which came on a one-yard run.
"I wanted a touchdown so bad," said Mughelli. "When I got in there, I didn't know what to do. I threw the ball up in the air because I wanted to congratulate my linemen. Then I was like 'wait, I want the ball.' Then one of my teammates handed me the ball.
"It's being gold-leafed right now."
--OT Todd Weiner, who missed three games following arthroscopic left knee surgery, was active for the 49ers game but he did not play. He could return to his starting right tackle spot against Carolina. If so, the Falcons could move his replacement, Tyson Clabo, to left tackle. Clabo has played well but Petrino said he liked the way Quinn Ojinnaka played in his first start Sunday at left tackle. Ojinnaka is replacing Wayne Gandy and Renardo Foster, who suffered season-ending knee injuries.
"Don't play these guys every week," Carr said referring to the Titans, who came into the game ranked fifth in the league in defense.
For the first time all day, Carr was on target.
Without Jake Delhomme (injured reserve) at quarterback, the Panthers can't compete with the Titans. Or the Steelers. Or the Ravens. Or the Colts. Or the Patriots, or any of the other top 10 defenses in the league.
What they can do is compete against teams like this Sunday's opponent -- the Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons rank 23rd in the league in defense, so it's conceivable the Panthers might reach double digits in points for the first time in four weeks.
There will be a good portion of Carolina fans that will pin the blame this week on Carr -- and deservedly so.
He looks scared in the pocket and seems to be struggling with reading defenses. Nor does he seem to inspire a lot of confidence in his offensive teammates.
It almost seems a foregone conclusion that when Vinny Testaverde (strained Achilles) is ready to play, he should be the starting quarterback.
But Carr is not the only problem.
The offensive line the Panthers worked so diligently to improve isn't one that will dominate an opponent by blowing them off the line of scrimmage. And Carolina's running backs are good, but they don't have a LaDainian Tomlinson, a guy who scares the heck out of defenses.
The Panthers do have a great receiver in Steve Smith, but unfortunately they have only one.
And Carr can't get him the ball because defenses have figured out if you roll a safety over to Smith's side every play you're going to shut him down. In 14 quarters running the Carolina offense, Carr has completed 13 passes to the Smith, a three-time Pro Bowler.
"I don't think it's fair to blame everything on David," said fullback Brad Hoover. "I don't think David deserves a lot of criticism. I think we as an offense deserve the criticism. We're all involved. It has nothing to do with one player. It can be turned and looked at however you want to look at it -- and it will. I'm sure it will as a matter of fact. But offensively we're one group."
The bottom line is the Panthers are still not good enough to compete with the league's best defenses.
And that's where the good news comes in.
If there's one positive for the Carolina offense moving forward it's this -- they don't face another top-10 defense until the Dallas Cowboys roll into town in Week 16.
"It had to be discouraging for the defense, I know," said Smith, who had three catches for 15 yards against Tennessee. "They played well and kept giving us opportunities and we never capitalized. That's unfair to the defense."
Added offensive tackle Jordan Gross: "We knew if we were going to win the game we had to keep David on his feet and he got hit a bunch. That was probably our worst game protection wise."
--QB David Carr left Sunday's game late in the fourth quarter after getting hit in the head and having some dizziness. He said he could have returned.
--QB Vinny Testaverde, 43, was the third quarterback on Sunday because of a strained Achilles tendon.
--DT Damione Lewis had two sacks on Sunday to take the team lead. The Panthers had three sacks as a team, nearly matching their season total coming into the game.
--RB DeShaun Foster had 63 yards on 17 carries. He ran hard but there weren't a lot of holes.
--WR Steve Smith was held to 15 yards on three catches Sunday as the Titans shut him down by rolling over safety coverage.
--CB Ken Lucas was very good for the Panthers on Sunday, intercepting one pass and tipping another that was picked off.
--DE Julius Peppers was flagged for two unnecessary roughness penalties on Sunday.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
After a disastrous 0-4 start, no one -- except maybe the Saints themselves -- could have envisioned them winning the next four games to climb back into the NFC South race.
Now that the once-reeling Saints have reeled off four straight wins, their fans are thinking big again -- and with good reason.
The Saints reached the halfway point of the season with a 41-24 beating of the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, continuing a resurgence that could gain more momentum in the coming weeks.
While Saints coach Sean Payton wasn't ready to look too far ahead, a no-no considering where they were four short weeks ago, it wasn't hard for the media and the fans to take a peek at the next eight weeks.
The Saints have exactly one game in that stretch against teams that had a winning record when they walked out of the Superdome on Sunday evening. And that one, against the 5-4 Tampa Bay Buccaneers, will be played in New Orleans on Dec. 2.
That soft schedule and recent play of the Saints' offense and defense had the Superdome rocking once again Sunday, much like it did during their magical 2006 season.
In order to reach the .500 mark, however, the Saints had to do something Sunday that seemed incomprehensible just four weeks ago. They had to end a five-game losing streak against AFC opposition by beating the Jaguars, the best team they have gone against since falling to the Indianapolis Colts in their season opener.
It was no easy task, to be sure. But the Saints validated their recent good play with another winning performance to pull into a second-place tie with Carolina in the NFC South race, just a half-game behind Tampa Bay (5-4).
The Saints again combined an impressive offensive display with a solid defensive performance in whipping the Jaguars. Quarterback Drew Brees threw for 445 yards and three touchdowns and Mike McKenzie's 75-yard interception return for a score in the third quarter was a pivotal play.
Still, Payton made sure that his team remained grounded even though it has completely made up for its 0-4 start.
"We're at the halfway point of the season and we're 4-4," Payton said. "We would've liked to have been better than that at this point to start the season. The guys hung in there and battled. We have been able to scrap and fight and find a way to hang tight.
"We've got a long ways to go," he said, reiterating the record. "We're 4-4 right now and we've got eight games left. So that record doesn't put you anywhere, the playoffs or anything."
But at least the Saints are showing that there is hope after that horrific start. And now that they're out of a deep hole, they can clearly see what's in front of them.
"I feel like an 0-4 start is only going to do one of two things to you," Brees said after producing the third-highest passing day in club history and leading his team to 538 total yards. "It's either going to throw you in the tank, or it's going to give you the edge. It's only made us stronger."
--C Jeff Faine missed his second straight game Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars because of a strained left pectoral muscle.
--C/G Jonathan Goodwin once again started Sunday's game in place of Faine.
--DT Brian Young was inactive for the game with the Jaguars after he experienced swelling in his injured left knee following Friday's practice.
--DT Antwan Lake started his first game for the Saints with Young out of the lineup against the Jaguars.
--WLB Scott Shanle did not play Sunday against the Jaguars because of a strained left hamstring.
--WLB Brian Simmons replaced Shanle in the starting lineup against the Jaguars.
--LB Alfred Fincher, who has been having headaches after receiving a concussion in last week's game at San Francisco, was placed on injured reserve Saturday.