GAME SNAPSHOTKICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Sam Rosen, Bill Maas, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 22nd meeting. The Falcons lead the series 14-7. The Panthers have lost nine of their last 10 against Atlanta at the Georgia Dome. However, they did beat Michael Vick for the first time ever last month at Bank of America Stadium 24-6 behind 131 yards rushing by DeShaun Foster.
2005 RANKINGS: Panthers: offense 22nd (21st rush, 17th pass); defense 4th (5th rush, 11th pass). Falcons: offense 11th (1st rush, 28th pass); defense 18th (23rd rush, 14th pass)
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Michael Vick will have a shadow on Sunday, and his name will be Thomas Davis. The Panthers used their rookie linebacker/safety to spy on Vick in the first meeting, and the result was a dominating defensive performance as Carolina held Atlanta to two just two field goals on offense. Meanwhile, the Falcons will attempt to exploit a Panthers defense that was gashed for 194 yards on the ground by Dallas RB Julius Jones last weekend. But in order to deal a blow to the Panthers' playoff bid, Vick needs to protect the ball and take advantage of every opportunity when the Falcons drive into Carolina territory. Offensively, the Panthers continue to struggle with their own ground game, but RB DeShaun Foster did have the team's lone 100-yard rushing performance of the season when he racked up 131 yards in the first meeting. The Panthers also have a new threat in WR Drew Carter, whose speed has become a factor as he has earned more playing time opposite big-play WR Steve Smith.
FAST FACTS: Panthers: Smith needs six receptions to join Muhsin Muhammad as the only players in franchise history with 100 in a season, and nine to break Muhammad's single-season record of 102 set in 2000. Falcons: Have won nine of the previous 10 meetings in Atlanta. ... Vick needs 55 rushing yards to pass Kordell Stewart (2,874) for the seventh-most all-time by a quarterback.
--RB Nick Goings was added to Carolina's injury report as questionable after straining his ankle in practice. Given the ramifications of Sunday's game against Atlanta, expect Goings to play.
--C Jeff Mitchell was downgraded to questionable on Thursday and was held out of practice. If he doesn't play, that could mean all sorts of problems for the Panthers, who might have to go with rookie Geoff Hangartner.
--RB DeShaun Foster returned to practice on Thursday but is still listed as questionable. Foster has said he will play this week against Atlanta. He ran for 131 yards in his last outing against the Falcons. Foster's career with Carolina could be winding down, as he becomes an unrestricted free agent after the season.
--WR Steve Smith was fined $15,000 for touching an official in Saturday's loss to Dallas.
--DE Mike Rucker (ankle) was upgraded to probable and will play Sunday.
--DT Kindal Moorehead (shoulder) was upgraded to probable and will play Sunday.
--PK Todd Peterson is eager for his next field-goal opportunity after the Bucs blocked his 28-yarder in overtime last week. The 12th-year veteran is 22-for-24 this year.
--RG Kynan Forney returned to practice Thursday after missing Wednesday -- and most of the fourth quarter and all of overtime of last week's game -- with a stinger. If he can start, that means Ben Claxton will take Austin King's spot as the No. 3 guard.
--LG Matt Lehr has a strained calf that's kept him out of the last two practices. Austin King replaced him during the second half at Tampa Bay, and King managed to hold his ground against Bucs DTs Anthony McFarland, Chris Hovan and Ellis Wyms.
--LCB Omare Lowe is excited about making his first career start in place of injured starter DeAngelo Hall. Now in his third season, Lowe has split time between corner and safety this year. He leads the Falcons in special teams tackles and likely has a future with the team in 2006.
--SS Keion Carpenter said his strained thigh tightened up against Tampa Bay and made it difficult for him to run without pain. Antuan Edwards, despite suffering bruised ribs on the opening drive, brought a physical approach to the position that Carpenter has lacked most of the season.
INSIDE THE CAMPSPanthers:
The Carolina Panthers are preparing for a heavy dose of cut blocking from the Atlanta Falcons this week.
In Carolina's 24-6 win over the Falcons last month, star defensive ends Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers both suffered ankle injuries as the result of cut blocks.
Peppers was taken down early in the game by tight end Alge Crumpler, but he returned. Rucker's injury came later in the contest, when he took a shot to his lower leg from tackle Kevin Shaffer, forcing him to miss not only the remainder of that game but also a crucial game the following week against Tampa Bay.
Both players say they're still feeling the effects of the injuries.
"It's like you have a car and you have a bad rim, you are going to feel that when you are driving," Rucker said.
Most NFL teams, including the Panthers, employ some cut-blocking philosophies on offense, but the Falcons and Denver Broncos do it with much greater frequency than other teams in the league. While it's considered cheap in some NFL circles, there's nothing in the league rules that prohibit cut blocks as long as the defensive player is not engaged in a block with another offensive player and if it's close to the line of scrimmage.
However, Panthers defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac is among those who'd like to see it outlawed completely.
"Definitely, I would," Trgovac said. "But until the league does something about it, they're within their rights to do what they're doing."
Defensive end Al Wallace called the practice "dangerous" and knows it can lead to career-threatening injuries.
"With our legs and knees, there is enough bad stuff that can happen on accident. But to allow someone to intentionally take a shot on someone's knees? That's kind of rough," Wallace said. "I don't want to say this is how it should or shouldn't be, but this is how we take care of our families. It's not like they are blocking like that to hurt anybody, but once you are hit below the knees, anything can happen. I'd like to see (the offensive linemen) stay on their feet."
When asked if he'd like to see a rule change, Rucker said, "If they said, 'Ruck, you decide,' then I probably wouldn't have it in the game."
The Panthers can petition all they want for an end to cut blocks, but it's not likely to do any good, coach John Fox said.
"It was discussed this year, even to the extreme of eliminating all the cut blocking on offense," Fox said. "But the fear of doing that is that it will cut down scoring. And, really, one of the big fears of the league with rules changes is that, yes, they're concerned with player safety -- but they don't want to turn it into soccer or hockey, where it's like 6-3. They want scoring.
"And there have been rules made through history with the design being to increase scoring, from where you kick off to a whole lot of different things. So I don't see it getting changed."
Greg Knapp is frustrated like everyone else, but the Falcons' second-year offensive coordinator can see a silver lining in the Falcons' 0-6 record when trailing at halftime this season.
Knapp's hope lies in continuing progress of quarterback Michael Vick and his two young receivers, Roddy White and Michael Jenkins. The experience they've gained since White and Jenkins became the starters six weeks ago is invaluable.
"We've had four different sets of starting receivers this year, but now in the last three or four games, we've gotten into a groove with these two young guys, and with (Brian Finneran) being our third (receiver), that's worked out pretty well," Knapp said Thursday. "When you change starting receivers for the first eight or nine games of the season, you're going to have to take some time there."
White missed the first six days of training camp in a contract holdout before he suffered a high ankle sprain that sidelined him for the last part of August and rendered him ineffective once the season started. He didn't catch his first pass until Week 4.
The Falcons were still committed to using Dez White as the starter opposite Jenkins, who took over for the released Peerless Price, when Roddy White returned to health. Dez White's knee injury, however, soon rendered him obsolete, and coach Jim Mora benched him in favor of Finneran entering Week 7.
Jenkins was the next wideout to suffer a high ankle sprain, and he missed two games before he and Roddy White started together for the first time. Atlanta lost 30-27 to Tampa Bay in Week 11, but White and Jenkins combined for nine catches, 177 yards receiving and a touchdown.
"It's exciting," said Knapp, who experienced many highs and several lows during his nine-year tenure with San Francisco. "To see more consistency from Mike (Vick) in knowing where they're coming out of routes and with them knowing how to set up a route, it'll take a good offseason or two to get on the same page consistently on game day. That's what I'm so excited about.
"These guys hardly worked together at all last year, because during the offseason we still had Peerless and Dez working as the No. 1s. It wasn't really until the middle of the season when Dez got hurt that we had the young guys work with Mike, and during the season, to try and get that timing down, that's hard to do."