Dome of Horrors

<P>As the Carolina Panthers return to the field this week, they return to the road. The trip to Atlanta is one of the shortest in-divisional trips in the NFL, but, it's a trip that always seems to bring out the worst in the Panthers.

This will be Carolina's 7th trip to the Georgia Dome to take on an Atlanta team that has been less than respectable during the bulk of the Panthers' time in the league. But, the way Carolina has played in Atlanta has made the Falcons look like Super Bowl contenders every year.

The Panthers sport just one win in their previous six trips to Atlanta it was a 9-6, five field goal thriller. When that's as good as it gets, that should tell you more than you need to know. Actually, the Panthers' best showing in Atlanta may have been in their first trip there, which was also their opening game in their inagural season. The Panthers rallied late to force overtime, and in fact, then-coach Dom Capers tried to go for two and the win, but that was thwarted by a penalty. Carolina lost 20-17 but walked out with their heads held high after nearly pulling off a win in their first game.

Since then, the Panthers have had little to hold their heads up in Atlanta. The second season, a 20-17 Falcon win in their 9th game...was their first of the year. Yet, the Panthers bounced back from that game to win their next 8 en route to a berth in the NFC title game.

In 1998, the Panthers gave Atlanta a boost towards their first Super Bowl appearance, losing to the Falcons twice in the first four weeks...the second meeting, in Atlanta, saw Carolina committ three turnovers in around a minute early in the second half and fall hard 51-23. In '99, Atlanta won 27-20, in a game that really wasn't that close, and last year, the Panthers blew a 12-3 lead in the last 5:04 and lost 13-12. It's also the game in which they lost tight end Wesley Walls for the year.

Defensive tackle Sean Gilbert talked this week about how tough the Falcons always play Carolina. If you look at the final scores in this series you'd believe that this has become the rivalry that geography and division say it should be. But, most of the games between these teams have been early in the season, and, outside of a game in the first Panthers' first year, haven't had any kind of playoff implication for either team.

But, the simple fact is: the Panthers have played horribly in most trips into the Georgia Dome. The one thing that could work to the Panthers favor here is the fact that most of the current line-up hasn't been a part of that inauspicious history. So, they could actually show up Sunday feeling good about a game in the Georgia Dome.

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