Following a loss to Tennessee that dropped Atlanta to 1-4, Falcons tight end Alge Crumpler bitterly groused that the coaching staff had moved away from letting the veterans be responsible for making the plays in the guts of a game. The younger receivers were running the routes where he was most effective, he said, and the lack of trust in the old guys was disrespectful and counter-productive.
Whether Crumpler was being too sensitive or coaches decided to heed his words, those claims no longer can be made.
The Falcons, behind a surge in production from veteran players, have won two straight games -- last Sunday's 20-13 victory over Carolina was their first on the road and their first in the NFC South -- to improve to 3-6.
Crumpler, in fact, scored the game-winning touchdown on a 30-yard reception from Joey Harrington to propel Atlanta over Carolina. His 30-yard score matched tailback Warrick Dunn's 30-yard touchdown run in the first quarter.
"It's not about me, it's about our team," Crumpler said after the victory over Carolina. "We won the game in the fourth quarter last week against San Francisco and we found a way this week."
Added Dunn, who had 26 carries a week after running 27 times: "I try to play within myself. Whether it's a two-yard run or a big play, I just try to make the most of my opportunities."
Maybe more than the experience that has emerged lately on offense has been the reliability of former defensive Pro Bowlers Keith Brooking, John Abraham, Lawyer Milloy and Rod Coleman, as well as two-time Pro Bowl corner DeAngelo Hall.
Though Atlanta has not run across offensive juggernauts the past two weeks, the defense has allowed just one touchdown in its victories. Carolina's score came on a 27-yard fumble return by cornerback Ken Lucas. The ruggedness of the Falcons' defense was apparent on its two last stands in the victory over Carolina.
With two minutes left, Coleman, who missed the first part of the season while recovering from thigh and knee surgery, sacked Vinny Testaverde for an eight-yard loss on second down. On the ensuing play, Brooking stopped DeAngelo Williams well short of a first down to force a punt.
The Falcons took the lead for good following Crumpler's touchdown, but 20 seconds remained and Carolina took possession at its 41. Coleman had another sack and forced fumble to close the door on the game.
"They were having a lot of fun," coach Bobby Petrino said of the defense. "Everyone should keep fighting."
No player has stepped forward like Milloy, who has overcome early season sluggishness to become the clear leader on the team. His violent play and no-nonsense tone over the past few weeks has become infectious to the point where no player or position group wants to be viewed as the weak link.
With backup tailback Jerious Norwood's ankle injury forcing Dunn to get the majority of the carries, Atlanta's offense seems more settled as well. Though Norwood is more of a game breaker, the stability of having one back seems to have added some needed uniformity to the offense.
In addition, Dunn said he's finally feeling physically up to snuff after springtime shoulder surgery that was followed by a procedure just before training camp to alleviate pressure on a herniated disc in his lower back.
"He was going to get better as the year went on," Petrino said of Dunn, who has 189 yards rushing the past two games. "That's showing up some. At about the third game of the year, he said, 'I'm starting to feel my timing. I'm starting to see things the way I usually do.'"
With that, Petrino has taken note.
"We're trying to make as big a commitment as we can to running the ball," Petrino said.
As much as the veterans are being called upon to try and change things around for the Falcons, can they continue to deliver?
"Hopefully I can stay healthy," Dunn said. "I don't feel old. People are trying to say that but I don't think like that."
--WR Joe Horn, who has historically played well vs. Carolina, was ruled inactive before the game because of a hamstring injury sustained during practice Friday. Horn started the first eight games and had only been marginally effective (18 receptions, 9.2 yards per catch). Rookie WR Laurent Robinson replaced Horn, who was slowed by hamstring and groin injuries the past two seasons when he played for New Orleans.
Horn said that he would be healthy enough to play next week against Tampa Bay.
--RB Jerious Norwood (sprained ankle) did not play against the Panthers but he is expected to be healthy enough to play against Tampa Bay next Sunday.
--QB Chris Redman saw his first regular season action since the 2003 season, when he was with Baltimore. Starter Joey Harrington got the wind knocked out of him after being sacked by Carolina LB Na'il Diggs. Redman entered the game midway through the first quarter on third-and-8 from Atlanta's 22. He connected on a nine-yard pass with tight end Alge Crumpler. Harrington returned on the next play.
--OT Todd Weiner returned to the starting lineup -- at left tackle -- after missing the past three games while recovering from arthroscopic left knee surgery. Weiner has started at right tackle for most of his career but because the fourth player to play left tackle this season because Tyson Clabo has played well at right tackle since stepping in for Weiner. Weiner replaced Quinn Ojinnaka, who made his first NFL start last Sunday vs. San Francisco after Wayne Gandy and Renardo Foster were lost with season-ending knee surgeries.
--Rookie TE Martrez Milner suffered a left ankle injury in the third quarter and he could be out for next Sunday's game against Tampa Bay. Though no diagnosis was provided, Milner had to be placed in a supportive walking boot and he needed crutches. Milner is used primarily as a blocker behind starter Alge Crumpler and backup Dwayne Blakley.
--OLB Stephen Nicholas, who missed more than a month after suffering a high ankle sprain, returned against Carolina. Nicholas solely was used on special teams. Before getting hurt, Nicholas was rotating with starting weak-side linebacker Demorrio Williams.
The inconsistency at the quarterback position has taken its toll on the Carolina Panthers, who have now lost three straight and dropped to 4-5 on the season.
After Sunday's game, wide receiver Steve Smith spoke to the team's quarterback situation, saying it has been a little difficult for everyone involved since Jake Delhomme went down with an injury in Week 3, forcing the Panthers to rotate in David Carr, Vinny Testaverde and Matt Moore. Only three times in nine games this season have the Panthers used fewer than two quarterbacks in a game.
"Sometimes it is (frustrating), not having a guy that's been here," said Smith. "Jake and I have been playing for four or five years. That's the difference. Sometimes you forget things like Jake may think this or Jake knows I think that. So does it hinder? No, but in the long run you want somebody back there that you've had in there for a long time.
"Unfortunately, that situation is not present right now so we've got to move on and whoever is back there has to rally up the troops and we have to run our routes accordingly. That's what you're supposed to do."
Aside from their problems at quarterback, the Panthers can't seem to win at home.
They've now lost six straight at home, dating back to last season, having been outscored 169-62 during that span.
"I don't know what it is about playing at home, but we have to get it fixed because this is unacceptable for any professional team to go out and play the way we do in front of our home crowd," said cornerback Ken Lucas, who accounted for Carolina's only touchdown in a 20-13 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday at Bank of America Stadium.
Although the Panthers are only one game out of first place in the awful NFC South, their season is clearly slipping away.
Atlanta was the easiest game remaining on their schedule and the Panthers finish up with games against Green Bay, New Orleans, Jacksonville, Dallas, Seattle and Tampa Bay.
The Panthers know that to return to their winning ways, they must run the football.
But they weren't able to do that on Sunday against the league's 24th-ranked run defense and a team they destroyed on the ground in recent meetings.
DeShaun Foster, who had four 100-yard games against the Falcons in the past five meetings, was held to just 59 on Sunday.
And if the Panthers can't run against the Falcons, they can't run against anybody.
"I thought that we were going to be able to run the ball at will today," said offensive tackle Jordan Gross. "(The Falcons) had good pursuit and were making plays on the backside of the run. I will have to look at the film, but we just have to do better. It's a team effort and everybody took their turn messing up."
Said Smith: "Offensively, we didn't do a very good job. We've got to do a better job. If we don't, things are going to continuously keeping happening like this."
--WR Steve Smith had five catches for 61 yards, but also had a fumble at the 2-yard line which resulted in a touchback and cost the Panthers seven points. With Carolina's quarterback situation still a mess, don't expect big numbers from Smith.
--QB David Carr did not play because of a concussion.
--QB Vinny Testaverde played through pain in his Achilles tendon, but wasn't very effective, completing just 13 of 28 passes for 153 yards.
--DE Mike Rucker got his first sack of the season for the Panthers on Sunday.
--RB DeShaun Foster, who has destroyed the Falcons of late, was held to 59 yards on 20 carries.
--CB Ken Lucas turned in another solid game for the Panthers with five tackles, three pass breakups and a fumble return for a touchdown.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
After generating a lot of hope and excitement with a four-game winning streak that helped them get back to the .500 mark after opening the season with four straight losses, the Saints took a big step back Sunday.
With their fans and media looking ahead to a softer second-half schedule that included seven games against teams that were at or below .500 going into last weekend's play, the Saints stumbled badly.
They opened the second half of the season the way they started it, with a lackluster, mistake-filled performance in a 37-29 loss to the previously-winless St. Louis Rams.
While the loss to the Rams was shocking enough, how they did it was much more disconcerting to coach Sean Payton and many players. After leading 7-0 on Reggie Bush's seven-yard touchdown run to cap their first possession, the Saints (4-5) were blown out of the water when the Rams scored 34 straight points.
Just like that, the Saints blew an opportunity to slip into a first-place tie in the NFC South with the idle Tampa Bay Buccaneers. While they certainly still have a chance to win the division, the Saints were left to wonder how they'll bounce back again after creeping back into the race.
No matter how many different ways he looked at it, Saints linebacker Scott Fujita figured his team got exactly what it deserved against the Rams.
No one had to tell Fujita, one of the Saints' defensive captains, that the final score was hardly a true indicator of what happened Sunday. That's just how badly the Saints, who were starting to look like the team that rolled to the division title a year ago, played against the Rams.
After Bush's touchdown, the Rams responded on both sides of the ball. Marc Bulger torched the Saints and the Rams' aggressive defense shut down the New Orleans offense, holding it to just 95 total yards though the first three quarters.
"It was very frustrating, today didn't go real well," Fujita said. "We got our butts kicked and probably deserved it. When you play that poorly as a team, you have no chance to win in this league."
In addition to playing poorly, the Saints, who were already without three injured starters on defense, lost All-Pro left tackle Jammal Brown late in the first quarter and Bush for a brief time in the fourth period.
The severity of Brown's injury was not immediately known. Payton said X-rays were negative, but Brown was seen wearing a protective boot after the game. Bush took a hard hit to the head, but returned late in the contest.
Like Bush, the Saints never knew what hit them.
The Rams, who converted on eight of 13 third-down opportunities, finished with 409 total yards as Bulger completed 27 of 33 passes for 302 yards and a pair of touchdowns. Steven Jackson returned from a back injury to rush for 76 yards and a 1-yard touchdown and he also tossed a 2-yard scoring pass to Randy McMichael.
"They threw the ball well and they converted the third downs," Payton said. "It was painfully obvious when you watch the game as to what team played better. They did a better job than us, and the score indicated it."
--LT Jammal Brown left Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams late in the third quarter with an injury to his lower left leg and didn't return. X-rays were negative, but Brown wore a protective boot as he left the locker room after the game.
--RB Reggie Bush was knocked out of the game early in the fourth quarter after taking a hard hit from linebacker Pisa Tinoisamoa, but returned late in the contest.
--DT Brian Young missed his second straight game after having arthroscopic surgery Wednesday on his left knee. It's unknown when Young will be able to return to the lineup.
--LDE Charles Grant missed a game for the first time in his six-year NFL career because of a sprained right ankle.
--WLB Scott Shanle was inactive for Sunday's game because of a strained left hamstring.
--CB Usama Young did not play against the Rams because of a hamstring injury.
--DT Antwan Lake started in place of Brian Young for the second straight week.
--LDE Josh Cooper made his first start of the season in Grant's absence.
--WLB Brian Simmons got the starting assignment for the second straight week because of Shanle's injury.
--C Jeff Faine started after missing the last 2 1/2 games with a strained left pectoral muscle.
--DT McKinley Boykin was signed off the practice squad to give the Saints more depth on the line with Brian Young inactive.
--TE John Owens was waived to open a roster spot for DT Mckinley Boykin.