Inside Slant: Panthers vs. Falcons II

It was a simple, if silly, question. And Falcons coach Jim Mora gave a quick and direct answer. <br><br> Asked if Saturday night's game against the Panthers was more important for Carolina (6-7), which is fighting for its playoff life, than his 10-3 NFC South championship team, he said, "No. No. Heck no. We've got a ton riding on this game.

Wondering how the Panthers have turned a 1-7 season around?

You need look no further than turnovers.

During their current five-game winning streak the Panthers have forced a remarkable 22 turnovers -- an average of 4.4 per game -- and are plus-16 in the takeaway/giveaway category. To put that number in some perspective, the NFC champion Panthers from a year ago had only 26 takeaways during the entire 16-game regular season.

It's no wonder the Panthers (6-7) have won five straight and have climbed back in the NFC playoff picture. In fact, if the season ended now, the Panthers would be the sixth seed in the NFC playoffs.

But the Panthers have a tough game Saturday night against the Atlanta Falcons, a team that forced three Carolina turnovers in a 27-10 win back in Week 3. That triggered a six-game slide for the Panthers.

But this is a different Carolina team. The Panthers have won five in a row and are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence.

In five weeks the Panthers have gone from minus-4 in takeaway/giveaway category to plus-12, which ties them for the best mark in the NFC with the 12-1 Philadelphia Eagles.

So what's the cause of the turnover binge? The Panthers aren't quite sure.

"I don't even know what it is," said linebacker Will Witherspoon, who has four picks in the last six games. "It's just that mojo that you get.

Everybody on the defense is coming up with plays, whether it's getting up in the quarterback's face and forcing him to throw the ball up in the air before he's ready, or the defensive backs covering well, or the linebackers helping out with the pass rush or dropping into (pass) coverage."

Panthers head coach John Fox gives part of the credit to his offense, which has put more points on the board early on in recent weeks.

In fact, the Panthers have scored on their opening possession in each of the last four weeks.

"We've started our games a little bit faster," Fox said. "We've had leads early in games, and I think that helps. That affects how your opponent plays.

"But more than anything, I think we just got better as a team. We started playing more aggressively and faster, and that's the name of the game. As we became more comfortable, we started playing more as one -- and that's important in all three phases (offense, defense and special teams)."

With the offense scoring more points and turning the ball over less, the Panthers have been able to put their defense in better position to be aggressive and to take more chances.

That's resulted in more pressure on the quarterback and some big turnovers.

A perfect example occurred Sunday when the Panthers scored on their first two possessions to take a 14-0 lead against the St. Louis Rams.

Playing with a lead, Carolina's defense was able to pressure Rams backup quarterback Chris Chandler into six interceptions in a 20-7 win.

Along with recovering a fumble recovery on muffed punt, the Panthers forced seven turnovers for the game, a team record.

Fox knows the run on turnovers might not last forever, but he's sure loving it while it's here.

"We've had more than our share of turnovers in the last five games and less than our share earlier in the season," Fox said.


It was a simple, if silly, question. And Falcons coach Jim Mora gave a quick and direct answer.

Asked if Saturday night's game against the Panthers was more important for Carolina (6-7), which is fighting for its playoff life, than his 10-3 NFC South championship team, he said, "No. No. Heck no. We've got a ton riding on this game.

"They're trying to get in the playoffs. We're trying to get a first-round bye. We're both fighting and kicking and scratching. This game is very important to both teams, and we both realize that.

"And I think even beyond that, if you took all that away and you said that both teams were 3-10 and it would still be a battle out there because it's a rivalry, it's two teams that I think really enjoy playing against each other. There's a little something to it. And it's a national-TV game."

There's truth to that.

The Falcons have dominated this series, winning 11 of the last 13 meetings, but the games are usually hot, especially in Atlanta.

The Panthers, who have won five straight since a 1-7 start, have not fared well against Falcons QB Michael Vick although they say they're not going to worry about installing any "Vick rules" for this game.

"We're going to do what we've been doing for the last five weeks," said Panther safety Mike Minter. "It's been working. We're going to stick with it. We're not going to change anything, regardless of who we're playing. We feel that'll be enough."

The Falcons seem more on point than they did two weeks ago, when last they played an NFC South team whose playoff aspirations were dubious. And the Bucs drilled Atlanta 27-0.

But that game was on the road, and this one is at home. Plus, that game served as a lesson of sorts.

Atlanta's league-leading rushing attack might be hurt by the loss of FB Justin Griffith, whose season ended with a broken left ankle Sunday, and RB T.J. Duckett, who'll miss at least one game after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left knee.

But the Falcons still have Vick, who seems to have an edge on the Panthers.

And the Panthers, who are defending their NFC championship, have a surprising running back in Nick Goings, a resurgent quarterback (Jake Delhomme) and wide receiver (Muhsin Muhammad), and a lot of pride.

"You notice confidence in the way they break the huddle, the way they run with the ball, the way they react to things," Mora said. "They just look like a team that's playing very confidently. And they should be. It's hard to string five-game winning streaks together in this league. Very hard."

Vick said the fact the Falcons have sewn up the division title is not enough to make his team let up. Although Atlanta is two games behind Philadelphia (12-1) for the No. 1 seed in the NFC and two games ahead of NFC North leader Green Bay (8-5) for the No. 2 spot, which will bring a first-round bye, his team is not taking anything for granted.

"Not at all. Our focus can't shift. We're playing for something this week," Vick said. "We're trying to get the first-round bye, and if we can do that that's just another step in what we're working toward."

SERIES HISTORY: 20th meeting. Falcons lead 13-6 and have won 11 of the previous 13 meetings, including a 27-10 loss in Charlotte on Oct. 3, when a 32-yard interception return for a score by CB Kevin Mathis in the fourth quarter broke open a 13-10 game.

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