GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 21st meeting. Falcons lead 14-6, and they have won three straight and 12 of the last 14. Quarterback Michael Vick is 5-0 against the Panthers. Including a 2001 game as a rookie in which he briefly subbed for Chris Chandler, Vick has scored eight touchdowns (four rushing) with 925 yards passing, 378 rushing, four interceptions and nine sacks. His fourth-and-goal run up the middle for a 12-yard touchdown forced overtime last year at the Dome.
2005 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 10th (1st rush, 28th pass); defense 16th (17th rush, 15th pass). Panthers: offense 23rd (26th rush, 15th pass); defense 5th (3rd rush, 16th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons have developing deep threats in WRs Roddy White and Michael Jenkins, but this game will be decided based on how well the Panthers are able to contain Michael Vick. He spearheads a running attack averaging 183.1 yards per game, and Carolina might be without leading tackler MLB Dan Morgan. If the Panthers can contain the run, they have a chance, but need to keep Vick in the pocket. Expect Carolina to pay extra attention to TE Alge Crumpler and hope CBs Chris Gamble and Ken Lucas can handle the receivers on their own. The Panthers will wear down defensively unless their own running game can help control the clock. RB DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis will split snaps, and QB Jake Delhomme needs someone else to step up in the passing game with opponents focused on neutralizing WR Steve Smith.
FAST FACTS: Falcons: Vick averaged 222.3 passing yards in November compared to 92.3 in October. ... Are 6-0 this season when scoring first. Panthers: Delhomme needs 457 passing yards to join Steve Beuerlein (12,690) as only players in franchise history to throw for 10,000. ... Smith seeks franchise-record eighth 100-yard receiving game of the season.
--RB DeShaun Foster has avoided the media this week, refusing to show up in the locker room on Wednesday or Thursday. Foster apparently doesn't want to talk about his increased role in the offense.
--RB Stephen Davis said he will accept whatever role coach John Fox gives him down the stretch. Though he still wants to be the primary ball carrier, Davis said Thursday he would be all right if the Panthers decide to use him similar to how the Pittsburgh Steelers use Jerome Bettis, which is mostly in short-yardage and goal-line situations. "As long as I'm getting opportunities to make plays, helping the team win, that's the most important thing," said Davis, who is tied for third in the NFL with 12 rushing touchdowns this season.
--PK John Kasay is certainly not in danger of losing his job this season, but coach John Fox reiterated on Thursday that he'd like to see more consistency from the 14-year NFL veteran down the stretch. Kasay enters Sunday's game having missed six of his last eight field goal attempts from beyond 40 yards. Kasay missed from 45 yards out on the road against Buffalo this past Sunday, one week after missing from 46 yards in Chicago. "He is not in a slump by any stretch, but down the stretch here we need him to make 45-yard field goals consistently," Fox said. Fox hasn't lost confidence in Kasay and said he will continue to lean on him in big games, even on field goals beyond 40 yards. In the past three seasons under Fox, Kasay had been a combined 16-for-19 from between 40 and 49 yards prior to the misses at Chicago and Buffalo. "I think John Kasay has spoiled us, spoiled me," Fox said. "I think 45-yard field goals are next to automatic, and we need to get back to that."
--WR Steve Smith has not caught a touchdown pass in three games.
--LB Dan Morgan did not practice on Thursday, which is not a good sign for a Carolina defense that needs to put the clamps on Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick on Sunday. In fact, Morgan, who is listed as questionable with a sprained ankle, did not attend practice on Thursday.
--RB Warrick Dunn needs 1 yard to surpass the 8,000-yard career rushing mark and join 32 other players who preceded him. He needs 40 yards to establish a new single-season career high with 1,134.
--QB Michael Vick needs five wins to reach 37 and move past Chris Chandler and into sole possession of second place on the franchise victory list. Steve Bartkowski won 56 games.
--TE Alge Crumpler ranks third behind San Diego's Antonio Gates and Jeremy Shockey of the New York Giants among tight ends with 633 yards and a 12.7 average per catch.
--PR Allen Rossum had returns of 29 and 27 yards last week at Detroit to set up touchdown catches by Alge Crumpler. Rossum is the franchise leader with 1,403 career punt return yards and 4,360 kickoff return yards.
--WLB Demorrio Williams has 92 tackles, three sacks, two interceptions, two passes defensed and a touchdown. He has blossomed since moving from the strong side and no longer having to take on oversized tight ends who cover him up and rub him out of plays.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:Panthers:
Ken Lucas, the starting cornerback for the Carolina Panthers, believes the controversy surrounding the comments he made after his team's 30-3 win over the New York Jets on Nov. 13 has adversely affected his play in recent weeks.
"I haven't been myself," Lucas said Thursday. "It's even affected how I'm playing."
Up until Thursday, Lucas turned down interviews with reporters after he was labeled as a "trash talker" in a headline of a USA Today story. The whole thing began when Lucas said after the game that the Jets "quit." He later said he meant that that the Jets quit passing the ball, which was true.
In reality, both were true.
But the day after the game, things got blown out of proportion when Panthers coach John Fox called Jets coach Herman Edwards to apologize for Lucas' comments and explain them to his old college buddy.
All of the local papers in the Charlotte and New York areas carried the story the next day, and USA Today labeled Lucas as a "trash talker," something he said he has never been during his career.
"When they said I was trash talking, well, that's not me as a player and that is not my character," Lucas said.
Lucas said he received a letter from an angry Jets fan who pointed out that you shouldn't kick people when they're down. Lucas said the letter really bothered him. After that, he turned inward, closing himself off to those around him, including his new Panthers teammates, some of whom he's had trouble bonding with anyway since coming over from Seattle.
After praying and talking extensively with his mother, Lucas said he's now put the incident behind him.
"That is what made me upset," Lucas said. "I was trying to make the point that maybe we would have had more opportunities to make plays, but then they stopped passing the ball.
"My choice of words at the time didn't reflect that. It came out and they took it the way they wanted to take it. I kind of got upset about it. But I know that's the media's job and I have to respect that. But we have a big game coming up and I have to put that behind me."
Lucas said he vows to be more careful about his comments in the future.
The Falcons' run defense played better at Detroit, but allowing 5.8 yards per carry against a Lions team that was coming apart at the proverbial seams says the problems aren't fixed.
At least the Falcons are facing Carolina, which has a backfield tandem the opposite of their own. DeShaun Foster and Stephen Davis aren't exactly feuding, but neither are they trading jokes and slapping high-fives in the carpool line.
Warrick Dunn, T.J. Duckett and Michael Vick have their mojo working to the tune of 200-plus yards in 12 of 29 games under coach Jim Mora, offensive coordinator Greg Knapp and offensive line guru Alex Gibbs. Leading the NFL in rushing for the last two years has given Atlanta an identity and a level of confidence that's infectious for the entire team.
The Panthers, who rank 26th in rushing, have just one run of 20 or more yards this season. The Falcons lead the league with 16.
Suffice it to say that everything Atlanta wants to accomplish defensively begins with stopping the run. If Foster, Davis and Co. average their usual 3.0 yards per carry, premier pass rushers like Rod Coleman and Patrick Kerney will smell blood.
The Falcons ended a three-game drought in which they managed just one sack by recording five against the Lions.
"It starts with stopping the run, but it also helps when our offense is doing a great job of getting on the board early, putting opposing teams in a situation where they can't keep running the ball," Kerney said. "Last week was just an example of how we can put it all together."