GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Saturday, 8:30 ET
TV: ESPN, Mike Patrick, Joe Theismann, Paul Maguire, Suzy Kolber
SERIES: 20th meeting. Falcons lead series 13-6. The Panthers are 1-8 at the Georgia Dome and have lost six straight there. In the last meeting between the two teams earlier this year, the Falcons won 27-10 as cornerback Kevin Mathis returned an interception 35 yards for a touchdown to break open a three-point game in the fourth quarter. The Falcons added a late touchdown to make the score more lopsided.
2004 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 18th (25th rush, 14th pass); defense 16th (16th rush, 22nd pass). Falcons: offense 20th (1st rush, 30th pass); defense 13th (10th rush, 21st pass) KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons rushed for 141 yards in the first meeting, but they won't have the physical inside running of injured RB T.J. Duckett. That could lead to more bootlegs and screen passes from QB Michael Vick. Atlanta must find some way to contain Panthers DE Julius Peppers, who has been dominating games for the past month. His pressure is a big reason the Panthers have 16 interceptions during their five-game losing streak. Carolina's offense has found balance with RB Nick Goings producing four consecutive 100-yard passing games. If he has success early and sets up the play-action pass, the Falcons' secondary is vulnerable to giving up big chunks of yardage.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: QB Jake Delhomme has a 99.3 passer rating since Week 9, fifth-best in the NFL. ... Trying to become just the fourth team in NFL history to win six consecutive games directly after breaking a six-game losing streak. ... Are 0-4 against Vick. Falcons: Are 4-4 overall and 1-2 against Carolina in games played on ESPN. ... Lead the series 13-6 and have won eight of the nine meetings at home.
--RB Nick Goings practiced on Thursday and will start for the Panthers on Saturday night. Goings has been bothered this week by an ankle injury.
--DT Kindal Moorehead recorded the first two sacks of his career last week against St. Louis and looks to follow up with another solid game this week.
--QB Jake Delhomme will be looking to avoid Falcons CB Kevin Mathis on Saturday night. Mathis has two interception returns for touchdowns in the past two games against Carolina.
--LB Mark Fields continues to improve this season and he shakes off the dust from missing last season. Fields missed all of 2003 while battling Hodgkin's Disease.
--TE Mike Seidman could see more balls thrown his way this week as the Panthers look for more options in the offense.
--WR Muhsin Muhammad will continue to be Jake Delhomme's top target on Saturday night. Muhammad has put up incredible numbers over the past six weeks and needs two more TD catches to establish a franchise record.
-- RCB Jason Webster will miss his third straight start for the Falcons when the Panthers visit Saturday night. He has a groin pull that apparently has something to do with a tendon issue.
-- CB Kevin Mathis will start in place of RCB Jason Webster (groin pull) when the Falcons play host to the Panthers Saturday night. He'll work in his usual nickel spot in passing situations, when Aaron Beasley is most likely to work at the RCB spot. Beasley also replaces FS Cory Hall in some passing situations, prompting the use of Allen Rossum at the LCB spot.
-- NT Ed Jasper will miss his second straight start because of a broken left hand. The break is above the wrist, toward the outside - or pinky-side - of his hand. He bent it back in the Dec. 5 game at Tampa Bay.
-- NT Chad Lavalais will make his second straight start, and third overall at nose tackle in place of Ed Jasper (broken left hand). Lavalais may have played his best game of the season last Sunday against the Raiders.
-- RB Warrick Dunn carried the ball 25 times for the Falcons last Sunday in a 35-10 win over the Raiders, and he should be busy again Saturday night against the Panthers unless the game gets out of hand. With RB T.J. Duckett (left knee scope) out for at least one game, Dunn will be counted upon heavily.
-- RB Jason Wright, signed off the Falcons' practice squad this week to replace T.J. Duckett (left knee scope) for at least one game, is quick and smart, coaches say. Wright, who's 5-feet-10, 210 pounds or so, was undrafted out of Northwestern, signed by the 49ers, cut, and added to Atlanta's practice squad Sept. 7. He'll be in uniform for Saturday night's game against Carolina, and almost certainly will play.
INSIDE THE CAMPSPanthers:
Todd Sauerbrun, the Panthers' often brash and outspoken punter, was arrested late Wednesday night on drunk driving and speeding charges, according to Charlotte-Mecklenburg police.
Sauerbrun, a three-time Pro Bowl selection, was charged with driving while impaired, speeding, and driving without a license after being pulled over on Caldwell Street near South Boulevard in uptown Charlotte.
It's unclear why Sauerbrun doesn't have a license.
According to police, Sauerbrun blew .19 on a breath-alcohol test. The state legal limit is .08. He was also charged with driving 64 mph in a 35 mph zone.
Panthers coach John Fox said Sauerbrun will play Saturday night against the Atlanta Falcons. Under NFL rules, the team has no grounds to suspend Sauerbrun.
Sauerbrun participated in Thursday's walkthrough but declined to talk to reporters.
"We're a microcosm of society," Fox said. "It happens to every other NFL team. It's something we take very seriously, but it's reality."
Sauerbrun, 31, has been to the Pro Bowl in each of the last three seasons after leading the NFC in gross punting average, the first player to do since 1970. He could be headed toward a fourth Pro Bowl this year, leading the conference with a 44.4-yard gross average.
Michael Vick completed 13 of 20 passes last Sunday against the Raiders, and Atlanta converted 10 of 16 third downs, easily a season's best.
It might not have been Vick's most dominant game as a passer, but it was a huge improvement over the week earlier, and given the way he kept his cool in the pocket it seemed an important step as the Falcons (10-3) move toward Saturday's game against the Panthers (6-7).
"From week to week, we progress as an offense," he said. "Our concepts change from week to week so we just have to make sure that we're on top of everything."
For all the difficulty Vick had against the Bucs on Dec. 5, when they surrounded him and made it appear as though the 6-foot Vick couldn't find his downfield receivers, he completed nine passes to four wide receivers against the Raiders.
"I would say my decision making (is where Vick's improved the most)," he said. "Just knowing where everybody going to be on offense, and anticipating my throws and making sure that guys are lined up in the right spots ... it's opening up."
Vick is 4-0 as a starter against the Panthers, but Carolina is very much in the wild card hunt whereas the Falcon seem almost secure as the No. 2 seed in the NFC. They're two games behind the Eagles (12-1) and two ahead of the Packers (8-5).
"Our focus can't shift," Vick said. "We're playing for something this week. I'm always fired up to play on ESPN. It's something we haven't done all year."