For most of the season, Atlanta's defense has been the element of an otherwise unsettled team that has kept the Falcons competitive.
The last three weeks, though, things have begun to unravel as the Falcons have been outscored 90-36. Typically, things have gotten out of hand defensively in the second half, after the offense's frequent stalls eventually forces the defense to wear down.
However, in the past three games, Atlanta fell behind at halftime 14-0 to Tampa Bay, 21-13 against Indianapolis and 21-0 vs. St. Louis.
Coach Bobby Petrino said he was surprised that the defense was such an easy mark against the Rams, although Atlanta shut St. Louis out in the second half until allowing running back Steven Jackson to bust a 50-yard run in the waning moments.
The Falcons rank 18th in total defense, allowing 272 total yards and 19th in points allowed (22.7). They have the 13th ranked pass defense (210 yards allowed per game) but are 24th in run defense 121.9. They've also forced 22 turnovers.
So for the most part, the defense has been solid.
Where things have broken down lately is the number of explosive plays.
Tampa Bay scored on a 44-yard touchdown pass from Jeff Garcia to Joey Galloway and on a 26-yard run from Earnest Graham. Indianapolis' Reggie Wayne caught a 23-yard touchdown pass and Anthony Gonzales had a 35-yard catch. The Rams had touchdowns of 31 and 50 yards, the shorter coming on a pass from Gus Frerotte to Torry Holt. Eight of the 11 touchdowns the Falcons have allowed the past three games have been on passes.
Atlanta has not gotten the pass rush it needs, especially from up the middle and from left end Jamaal Anderson, and its defensive backs have been susceptible to double-moves.
--For the first time in weeks, there was no major injury news following a game. Backup free safety Antoine Harris suffered a left knee injury against St. Louis but he is expected to play Monday against New Orleans. Harris played nickel safety in place of Jimmy Williams.
--OLB Stephen Nicholas might start being used on a rotational basis with starter Demorrio Williams again, as was the case before Nicholas suffered a high left ankle sprain that sidelined him for more than a month. Williams, whose contract expires at the end of the season, has been inconsistent lately and Nicholas is expected to assume the starting role next season.
Petrino said Batiste's run blocking has been hard to judge because the Falcons haven't run the ball much lately.
Two weeks ago, Carolina fans booed Carr relentlessly during a 31-6 loss to New Orleans and chanted, "We want (backup Matt) Moore."
"I don't know if I wanted to expose him here at home," Fox said of Carr. "Definitely (Sunday) and we'll kind of weigh that as we move forward. Anytime you don't have success it has an effect on you mentally. I still have confidence in David Carr."
The Panthers didn't pay Carr $3 million a year to be the No. 3 guy. He's been a tremendous disappointment and it's hard to imagine the Panthers would bring him back after the season.
Carr is under contract through 2008.
"I still think he has things to offer," Fox said. "I don't think it's gone as well for him, or for us, as we all expected. That doesn't mean that it won't moving forward either."
However, when asked if Carr will be the No. 2 quarterback this week when the Panthers head on the road to Jacksonville, Fox wouldn't say.
Not playing him at home seems to be a rather lame excuse for the Panthers lacking any faith in Carr, who has a 58.3 quarterback rating.
--QB Vinny Testaverde will start Sunday against Jacksonville if healthy. He seemed to make it out of Sunday's game unharmed. He threw two touchdowns and had the offense moving pretty good. It helped that the Panthers mixed things up with some trick plays to keep the 49ers off balance. Testaverde is 2-2 as the team's starter and has a QB rating of 71.2.
--QB Matt Moore was the No. 2 quarterback on Sunday. Look for him to maintain that role on Sunday.
--QB David Carr has been demoted to No. 3 on the depth chart.
--RB DeShaun Foster, even though he's averaging 3.6 yards per carry -- 1.3 less than backup DeAngelo Williams -- is likely to start against the Jaguars. Foster is a more physical back and the Panthers will need that against a tough defense like Jacksonville.
--RB DeAngelo Williams outgained starter DeShaun Foster last week with 82 yards rushing and 126 total yards, but likely will remain the complementary back against the Jags. Williams is averaging 4.9 yards per carry. However, coach John Fox said Williams is doing a better job of setting up his blocks, something that has limited Williams' playing time so far in the NFL.
--WR Steve Smith lined up all over the field on Sunday against the 49ers, even taking a direct snap from center. Smith had more than 80 total yards from scrimmage, but didn't find the end zone. Look for Smith to be active this week in a tough game against the Jaguars. Amazingly, Smith may not even reach 1,000 yards this season after setting his goal at 2,000. Smith has 701 yards and six scores. No Pro Bowl this year.
--OT Jordan Gross led the charge on the offensive line as the Panthers put up 166 yards and scored on the ground last week. However, Gross did hurt his team with a late hit that took them out of field-goal range on the game's opening possession.
--TE Dante Rosario broke into the offense on Sunday, catching a five-yard touchdown pass from Vinny Testaverde. He also recovered a big fumble on special teams, helping change the momentum of the game. The recovery led to a Carolina touchdown.
--TE Jeff King continues to be a decent weapon for the Panthers. He's not particularly fast, but gets open and is doing a better job of hanging on to the football of late
--DE Julius Peppers didn't have a sack Sunday but the Panthers had six as a team.
--MLB Jon Beason was a rookie Defensive Player of the Week nominee after he had seven tackles and an interception vs. the 49ers.
--CB Richard Marshall has put together nice back-to-back games. He had 13 tackles against the Saints. And then he had a 73-interception return and three pass breakups against the 49ers.
--SS Chris Harris left Sunday's game against the 49ers early with a sore back. John Fox did not update his condition on Monday, so we will have to wait until Wednesday to hear word.
--KR/PR Ryne Robinson is averaging 7.6 yards per punt return and only 20 yards per kickoff return for the Panthers.
--PK John Kasay is really struggling with short kickoffs this year. He has only one touchback. Kasay is 17-for-21 on field goal attempts this season.
--P Jason Baker is averaging 43.7 yards per punt with 20 punts inside the 20 and four touchbacks. Still, he hasn't had a great season.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Even as he tried to turn the page and start preparing for his team's next game, Saints coach Sean Payton was still kicking himself Monday -- 18 hours after a devastating 27-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs.
As he did immediately after the game, Payton expressed regret at calling a double-reverse with his team holding a three-point lead with 3 1/2 minutes to play. The play backfired when Reggie Bush's flip to Devery Henderson was behind him and a fumble was recovered by the Bucs.
Eight plays later, the Bucs scored the game-winning touchdown with 14 seconds to play, virtually knocking the Saints out of the NFC South title chase and crippling their chances at a wild-card as well.
Payton knew the ways of his mistake the moment it happened, taking the blame during his post-game news conference. By Monday afternoon, nothing had changed his mind.
"The thing about yesterday is that we were in a position to win a game and we didn't," he said. "That's the thing I beat myself up over -- specifically that (double-reverse) call on second down. That's unfortunate."
While he knows his team must play better in the final four weeks to have any chance at a second straight playoff berth, Payton said it's about better coaching as well. He pointed the finger at himself for personnel issues that forced the Saints to use all three of their second-half timeouts in the third quarter.
"Those second-half timeouts are too valuable and we have to do a better job, starting with me, of being smarter and more judicious," he said, adding that it's not the first time that's happened this season.
"It certainly ties your hands in a game where you couldn't challenge if you needed to, for instance. It ties your hands, just in regards to clock management. We can improve on that and we will."
--QB Drew Brees had season-lows in completions and yards in hitting on 17 of 23 passes for 179 yards and two touchdowns in a 27-23 loss to the Tampa Bay Bucs. Brees, who had a long pass of 45 yards, was sacked a season-high three times. He finished with a passer rating of 125.1.
--RB Reggie Bush led the Saints in rushing with 64 yards on 13 carries and averaged 4.9 yards per attempt with a long of 14. He also caught three passes for 13 yards.
--WR Marques Colston was shut down by the Bucs after he caught a 40-yard pass to set up a touchdown on the Saints' second possession. He had just one reception the rest of the way and that lost one yard to finish with two catches for 39 yards.
--WR Devery Henderson started for the first time since Nov. 11 and caught one pass for a 45-yard touchdown in the second quarter.
--TE Eric Johnson caught two passes for 12 yards with a long of seven yards.
--LCB Mike McKenzie had three tackles and had an interception, which he returned 53 yards for a touchdown in the third quarter.
--FS Josh Bullocks recorded a team-high 12 total tackles with 10 solo stops in the loss to the Bucs.
--P Steve Weatherford averaged 42.8 yards on six punts, but his net average was 41.3. He dropped one punt inside the 20 and had a long of 54.