GAMEDAY: Panthers vs. Falcons

23rd meeting of the two teams. Atlanta leads, 14-8, but the Panthers took convincing wins in both meetings last season. Losing 24-6 at Carolina in Week 13 marked the first time in six starts that quarterback Michael Vick failed to beat Carolina.

Atlanta Falcons (0-0) at Carolina Panthers (0-0)

KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
GAMEDATE: 09/10/06
SURFACE: Grass
TV: FOX, Matt Vasgersian, J.C. Pearson, Jay Glazer
SERIES: 23rd meeting. Atlanta leads, 14-8, but the Panthers took convincing wins in both meetings last season. Losing 24-6 at Carolina in Week 13 marked the first time in six starts that quarterback Michael Vick failed to beat Carolina. The Falcons are 5-6 all-time at Charlotte.
2005 RANKINGS: Falcons: offense 12th (1st rush, 27th pass); defense 22nd (26th rush, 14th pass). Panthers: offense 22nd (21st rush, 17th pass); defense 3rd (4th rush, 9th pass)

KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons can't afford a slow start after getting blasted by a combined score of 68-17 in two meetings last season. Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis recorded nine tackles in those games -- 29 percent of his total for the entire season -- acting as a spy on QB Michael Vick. Carolina boasts one of the league's best front sevens on defense, so Vick must prove he can utilize what Atlanta is counting on to be an improved passing game to hurt the Panthers downfield. The Falcons added DE John Abraham and S Lawyer Milloy in the offseason, and will focus on shutting down RB DeShaun Foster, especially if Panthers WR Steve Smith (hamstring) can't play. QB Jake Delhomme has a 106.1 passer rating in three games against Atlanta, but the bigger factor will be the turnover battle, which Carolina won six to one last season.

FAST FACTS: Falcons: WR Ashley Lelie has averaged an NFL-best 17.9 yards per reception since 2002. ... Coach Jim Mora is 2-0 in season openers. Panthers: Had 10 sacks in two games against Atlanta last season. ... Coach John Fox has won more than twice as many games (41) in four years as the team won in the previous four years (20).

Falcons:
--FB Fred McCrary missed practice the last two days with a sore ankle, so it looks more apparent that the Falcons will sign Kevin Dudley off the practice squad. With McCrary ailing, the team has only three healthy backs in Warrick Dunn, Justin Griffith and Jerious Norwood.

--Depending on the speed and elusiveness of Carolina WR Steve Smith, DeAngelo Hall could spend all day covering the Panthers' star offensive player. If Smith isn't 100 percent, it's possible that coordinator Ed Donatell could use Hall more to blitz or to help the right-side cornerback tandem of Jason Webster and Jimmy Williams to shadow Keyshawn Johnson.

--WR Ashley Lelie has added the speed and depth to the perimeter passing attack that the offense sorely needed, but it will go for naught if QB Michael Vick doesn't put the ball up in the air and let him make a play. Vick could take a page out of Jake Delhomme's book and see the wisdom in giving receivers those kinds of opportunities, because it builds confidence and camaraderie in each other.

--CB Allen Rossum will return all the punts and kickoffs as long as he stays healthy and the score is close. In last year's trip to Carolina, Rossum broke off a 58-yard opening kickoff return, but his season essentially ended on that play with a knee injury. He's been healthy throughout preseason and has looked like the same guy who went to the Pro Bowl two seasons ago.

--MLB Keith Brooking moves inside now that Ed Hartwell will miss probably the next three games with knee injuries. With Brooking no longer manning the weak side, Demorrio Williams gets thrust back into a starting role. Williams can help tremendously if he makes the right reads, but his speed can't compensate for blown assignments.

Panthers:
--WR Steve Smith did not practice on Thursday and remains questionable for Sunday's game. It marked the second straight day Smith did not even make it out on to the field.

--LB Na'il Diggs practiced for the Panthers on Thursday. Although he's listed as questionable on the team's injury report, it looks like Diggs will be a go for Sunday.

--LB Chris Draft will replace Na'il Diggs if he's unable to play because of a sprained knee.

--RB DeShaun Foster ran for 296 yards and scored three touchdowns in two games last season against the Falcons, so the Panthers are looking for big things from him Sunday.

--CB Ken Lucas returned to the field on Thursday, one day after leaving practice with a bruised arm.

--CB Richard Marshall is expected to work in nickel packages for the Panthers on Sunday.

INSIDE THE CAMPS:

Falcons:
After the Panthers beat Atlanta 24-6 last year in Charlotte, a lot was made of Carolina's use of unscouted looks and the wisdom of general manager Marty Hurney and head coach John Fox to draft Thomas Davis in the first round.

It was Fox's use of Davis, many reasoned, that allowed Carolina to spy quarterback Michael Vick so effectively. In beating Vick for the first time in his six career starts against them, the Panthers recorded four sacks, two interceptions and held him to just 17 of 34 passing for 171 yards.

Falcons head coach Jim Mora, however, believes Carolina deserves credit for putting together an entire season of solid work, not just in two games.

"They won 11 games and advanced to the NFC Championship and that wasn't because they beat us twice. That was on their body of the work for the year," Mora said. "If we take a narrow view and say, 'They put all their eggs in one basket to beat the Falcons,' that is a little self serving. I think they are an outstanding football team. They are solid throughout. You don't see a weakness."

As Atlanta sank from eighth in rushing defense in 2004 to No. 22 last year, perhaps no game reflected the team's tendency to tackle poorly and use passive technique than the Week 13 loss at Carolina.

Running back DeShaun Foster, who ran 21 times for 131 yards and one touchdown, bounced off Bryan Scott on his game-best 30-yard gain. When DeAngelo Hall missed an attempt to pick off a quick screen from Jake Delhomme, Scott whiffed on the left sideline, and Steve Smith scored an 18-yard touchdown.

Chris Crocker doesn't lend too much credence to the notion that he and Lawyer Milloy have energized the secondary, much less the entire Atlanta defense.

The Falcons traded a fourth-round pick to Cleveland in their acquisition of Crocker, their new starting free safety, on March 22. They signed Milloy, the starting strong safety, five days earlier.

"Look around this locker room, and you see a lot of guys who went to the Pro Bowl before we got here," Crocker said. "Guys like (Keith) Brooking, Rod (Coleman), Pat (Kerney) and DeAngelo (Hall). They've always played hard-nosed football. Those kinds of guys don't need a lot of outside influence to bring out their aggression. They've already got it."

Players like nose tackle Grady Jackson, cornerback Jason Webster and safety Kevin Mathis have a physical reputation, too, but Mora doesn't dispute the influence Crocker and Milloy added. New right end John Abraham and Milloy each earned three Pro Bowl invitations.

"If they fit in the way we anticipate them fitting in and play the way they played in the past, then we should certainly be better," Mora said. "Until it's done and until you see it, it's not validated. I don't think you want to make a judgment one way or the other based on one game. I think it's a process through the course of the season. I just feel confident that we will develop into a good defense."

Panthers:
The Carolina Panthers continue to be without their top offensive weapon as wide receiver Steve Smith missed his second straight day of practice Thursday.

Smith remains questionable on the team's injury report, but there's growing speculation he may not risk further injuring the hamstring for fear he might actually tear the muscle.

"This is a long season and it's stupid to jeopardize anything over something foolish whether it's jabbering (with DeAngelo Hall) or something that may hinder myself or my team long term. Because that is what I'm in this game for long-term, not little cliff notes or any of those things," Smith said on Wednesday.

Smith did not address the media on Thursday.

Panthers head coach John Fox offered no new information on the injury, saying nothing is changed and the team is taking everything day-to-day.

Fox said it will likely come down to a game-time decision.

The Panthers would probably start Keary Colbert over Drew Carter on Sunday if Smith can't play, however expect both to see significant action. Carter gives the Panthers more of a deep threat, something they would desperately need if Smith is not available.

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