Carolina Panthers (1-1) at Atlanta Falcons (0-2)
KICKOFF: Sunday, 4:15 ET
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, Tony Boselli
SERIES: 25th meeting. Falcons lead the series 15-9 and are 9-3 against the Panthers at the Georgia Dome. However, the Panthers seem to have rid themselves of the Georgia Dome jinx, defeating the Falcons on the road in each of the last two seasons. Overall, the Panthers have won three of the last four games against their NFC South rivals after losing nine of the previous 10 matchups.
KEYS TO THE GAME: RT Jeremy Bridges returns from a two-game team-imposed suspension and is expected to start over rookie Ryan Kalil, who was beaten for two sacks against Houston. Bridges' first priority is helping the o-line create a push in the ground game because the Falcons bring good pressure in obvious passing situations. ... Trigger happy: Falcons QB Joey Harrington has been sacked 13 times in two games, and his protection isn't likely to get better with LT Wayne Gandy's status uncertain. Coach Bobby Petrino wants to focus on the short passing game and for Harrington to get rid of the ball quickly, especially with the running game lacking consistency thus far.
KEY INJURIES: Panthers: S Nate Salley (knee) and CB Dante Wesley (collarbone) were placed on injured reserve this week. Falcons: Gandy (hamstring) would likely be replaced by undrafted rookie Renardo Foster; FS Chris Crocker (knee) is practicing and might start over Jimmy Williams.
FAST FACTS: Panthers RB DeShaun Foster has 503 rushing yards in the past five meetings. ... Falcons RB Warrick Dunn needs 434 rushing yards to reach 10,000 for his career.
--RG Jeremy Bridges will start this week for Carolina after missing the last two weeks with a suspension.
--CB Curtis Deloatch will be the team's No. 4 corner this week.
--DE Stanley McClover (groin) did not practice Thursday and may not play again this week.
--FS Marquand Manuel may start this week with Deke Cooper nursing a groin injury.
--The local prosecutor in Surry County, Va., said he plans to press charges against suspended quarterback Michael Vick, but he might not put forth evidence at next Tuesday's scheduled grand jury hearing. Commonwealth Attorney Gerald Poindexter said he would like to use some of the evidence collected by federal investigators in their prosecution of Vick and three others, but that evidence might not be shared until after Vick is sentenced Dec. 10.
--FS Chris Crocker went through his second day of practice after returning from a bone bruise in his knee and went through all drills with the first-team defense. He also worked as the nickel back. Crocker, who has not played his season, appears set to make his debut as the starter vs. Carolina Sunday.
--Starting LT Wayne Gandy returned to practice and took part in some drills as he recovers from a hamstring injury that kept him out of the final three quarters in last Sunday's loss at Jacksonville. Gandy's backup, rookie Renardo Foster, rotated with the first offense.
--TE Dwayne Blakley is not expected to play Sunday because of a pectoral injury that has kept him from practicing. This is a bigger loss than is may seem because Blakley has been used a lot in two tight end or H-back sets and was off to a very solid start. If Blakley can't play, rookie Martrez Milner would be the No. 2 tight end.
--Rookie WR Laurent Robinson, who did not play last Sunday because of a hamstring injury, is expected to play vs. Carolina.
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
Carolina Panthers outside linebacker Thomas Davis won't be spying on the Falcons this week.
For the past two seasons, Davis' primary role when the Panthers played the Falcons twice a year was to spy on elusive quarterback Michael Vick. Davis' mission was fairly simply -- follow Vick wherever he went on the field and take him out.
But while the Panthers are still at war, so to speak, with their NFC South rivals, the state of affairs dramatically changed this off-season.
With Vick suspended indefinitely by the NFL for his role in a dog-fighting ring, the Panthers no longer need a spy. Joey Harrington will run the Falcons offense this Sunday when the Panthers visit the Georgia Dome, and he can't transform into a running back quite the same way Vick could.
As for Davis, he'll still be in the starting lineup for the Panthers, but it will be just like any other game.
"It's definitely a totally different game plan for me this time," Davis said. "I get to line up and just play football this week, sort of like I do every week. I don't have to worry about spying."
The Panthers drafted Davis in the first round in 2005 because, in part, he gave the team a weapon to defend against Vick.
You may recall that Vick had become a terrific thorn in the side of Carolina defensive coordinator Mike Trgovac from 2002-2004, winning all five starts against the Panthers.
He became the guy they couldn't beat.
But when Davis arrived, things changed.
The Panthers finally had someone fast enough to chase Vick around and keep him contained. Carolina got over the Vick jinx and won three of the last four games from the Falcons.
"The game plan was a lot easier for me when I'm spying because all I had to worry about was where he was," Davis said. "I basically spied on him wherever he went. Now it's a different game plan. I have to go out and prepare for Atlanta the way we would every other team. It's just different now."
Everything is different about the Falcons.
They have a new head coach in Bobby Petrino, as well as two new coordinators. Their style has changed on both sides of the football.
They still have Warrick Dunn and Jerious Norwood in the backfield, but the Falcons don't do as much zone-blocking or run as many stretch plays as they did in the past.
"I think it's completely different," Panthers coach John Fox said of this year's Falcons. "In the past I likened it to playing the option versus a pro passing attack.
"It created problems without a doubt because it was so different and very hard to simulate, even just from a typical quarterback in the National Football League. That's basically how it's changed. It doesn't mean it's going to be any easier this week but it's definitely different."
Fox is being kind.
The Falcons (0-2) have shown nothing on offense so far this season, managing just 10 points in two games on the road.
They lost 24-3 at Minnesota in Week One and 13-7 last week at Jacksonville.
Harrington has completed 67.3 percent of his passes, but has yet to throw a touchdown pass. He's been picked off twice.
Atlanta led the league in rushing in each of the last three seasons - in large due to the mobile Vick - but they rank just 24th this season, averaging a mere 89 yards per game on the ground.
Although the Panthers will have to deal with a hostile crowd for the Falcons' home opener, the general feeling is if they can get a lead early this could be a get well game for Julius Peppers and the Carolina defense. And they need it after last week's disastrous 34-21 loss to the Houston Texans.
Falcons wide receiver Roddy White has been one of the few bright spots on an offense that has struggled to put points on the board and is on the verge of a possible quarterback change.
The third-year product did not live up to his first-round selection during his first two seasons, as dropped passes and had a marginal amount of production (59 catches total) in a run-oriented offense, had some fans calling for his release.
Though he might not have an army of converts, White does lead the Falcons with eight catches and has been its most productive receiver or running back (110 yards).
"My confidence level is real high because I'm getting the ball during the week during practice and they're finding ways to get it to me in games," White said. "I'm catching like 20 to 30 balls (in team drills) in practice and that's really good because the last few years, that wasn't the case."
White played well enough during the offseason and in training camp for coach Bobby Petrino to make him the starting wideout opposite Joe Horn. Former starter Michael Jenkins was moved into the slot as the No. 3 receiver.
The change, thus far, has been White's increased maturity, which has gone hand-in-hand with Petrino's pushing.
"The whole deal with him was to get his confidence back," Petrino said. White needed to, "experience a whole lot of catches in practice and know that we're going to go to him in the game. Right now, I feel like he's playing with a lot of confidence. We have confidence in him."