Panthers must confront Georgia Dome demons

If the Panthers (10-5) are to make the NFC playoffs this season, it likely means they will have to overcome their past demons to do so and beat the Falcons at the Georgia Dome, a place that has been a virtual house of horrors for them over the past decade. The Panthers are 1-9 against the Falcons at the Georgia Dome since coming into the league in 1995.

Atlanta should be a fairly loose team after having been eliminated from playoff contention following an overtime loss to Tampa Bay, its third loss in the past four games. And no doubt Michael Vick should be plenty motivated to gain a little revenge after losing to the Panthers for the first in his career last month.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have to find a way to pick themselves up off the floor after a bitter and controversial defeat.

The Panthers still control their own playoff destiny.

If they win, they're assured at least a wild-card spot. But the only way the Panthers would get a home playoff game is if they beat the Falcons and the Bucs were to somehow lay an egg at home against the New Orleans Saints (3-12).

That's probably not going to happen, so the Panthers are likely staring straight at a wild-card spot and a potential first-round road game against one of three teams -- Tampa Bay, Chicago or the New York Giants.

But a loss could mean no playoffs at all, something that was unimaginable to Carolina fans just three weeks ago when the Panthers were 9-3 and in first place in the NFC South. If Carolina loses, it's possible the two wild-card spots could go to some combination of Washington, Dallas or Minnesota.

The Panthers can still sneak into the playoffs with a loss, but it would require help from others teams, and that's not a something they want to rely on.

Plus, a loss would mean the Panthers would finish the final quarter of the season 1-3, and it's extremely rare for an NFL team to make a run deep into the playoffs after finishing the regular season on a sour note.

"We were in the driver's seat for two out of three weeks, and we didn't take care of the business," cornerback Ken Lucas said. "Our backs are against the wall now."

Added guard Mike Wahle: "Clearly we have to come back (this) week and show something if we want to get into the postseason."

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The Dallas Cowboys got an early Christmas present on Saturday, while the Carolina Panthers left Bank of America feeling like they got Scrooged by the officials. A controversial running-into-the-kicker penalty on Julius Peppers led to a game-winning touchdown pass from Drew Bledsoe to Terry Glenn with 24 seconds remaining, lifting the Cowboys to season-saving 24-20 victory over the Panthers on Christmas Eve.

After Carolina battled back to take a 20-17 lead on a Jake Delhomme touchdown pass with 2:32 left, the Cowboys quickly drove into field-goal range and set up a 33-yard attempt by Billy Cundiff.

As Peppers and Ken Lucas got a good push into the backfield, Cundiff's kick sailed wide right. But while the home crowd celebrated an apparent victory, a yellow flag rested on the ground near the three tangled bodies of Peppers, Lucas and Cundiff.

Peppers said he didn't touch the ball, but Lucas insisted he did deflect the ball with his left middle finger, which would have nullified any running-into-the-kicker penalty. Replays appeared to show the trajectory of the ball changed, and the Panthers quickly called timeout to give the officials a chance to review the play.

However, the call was not overturned, as the officials ruled the ball was not touched.

"Me and God know that I touched the ball," Lucas said.

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