KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 ET
TV: FOX, Chris Rose, Terry Donahue
SERIES: 26th meeting. The Falcons lead the series 15-10. The Panthers, winners of two straight at the Georgia Dome, defeated Atlanta 27-20 Sept. 23. A meltdown by cornerback DeAngelo Hall, in which he drew three penalties on one series then got into a sideline shouting match with coach Bobby Petrino and assistant secondary coach Joe Whitt Jr., allowed Carolina to drive in for the tying touchdown.
KEYS TO THE GAME: The Falcons hope the return of TE Alge Crumpler gives QB Joey Harrington the safe target he needs to beat the blitz. The play-calling is conservative with Harrington under center, but he must hit a few early passes to back the Panthers' safeties away from the line. ... Panthers QB Vinny Testaverde looks like he'll be healthy enough to start. If not, it's rookie Matt Moore. WR Steve Smith has been limited to five catches for 33 yards the past two games, and the Falcons will roll a safety over to eliminate big plays. Someone has to step up as another playmaker on this unit.
KEY INJURIES: Falcons: OT Todd Weiner will start, and it could be on the left or right side; Norwood (ankle sprain) is uncertain; Crumpler (knee/ankle) will return after missing two games. Panthers: Testaverde (Achilles) is practicing; Carr (concussion) appears out; MLB Dan Morgan (Achilles) was placed on Injured Reserve; C Justin Hartwig (broken thumb) and WR Keary Colbert (foot) are uncertain.
FAST FACTS: Panthers RB DeShaun Foster has averaged 114.8 rushing yards (5.5 yards per carry) in five career games against Atlanta and 54.2 (3.8) against everyone else.
--RB Jerious Norwood (sprained right ankle) said Wednesday he thought he would be ready to play at close to full speed Sunday, though he did not practice Thursday. It was his second straight day of not practicing after getting hurt in the second half of last Sunday's victory over San Francisco.
--RB Artose Pinner took the practice snaps reserved for Jerious Norwood. Coach Bobby Petrino said that if Pinner has to play, the offense would not radically change. Pinner (5-10, 230) said even though his size has made him a short-yardage back in the eyes of coaches, he has the ability to break off long runs. He had a 46-yard run on a fake punt this season.
--OLB Stephen Nicholas, who suffered a high-ankle sprain more than a month ago, still might not be ready to play. The team has been cautious in trying to bring him back too quickly. Demorrio Williams has taken all of the snaps at WLB whereas when Nicholas was healthy, they platooned.
--OT Todd Weiner went through another practice working at both tackle spots. Neither Weiner nor Petrino will divulge if he will start at right tackle or left tackle.
--DE Chauncey Davis has come on strong lately. Davis, who has started at both end spots for much of the past two seasons before having his starting left end job given to first-round pick Jamaal Anderson, had three tackles vs. San Francisco. Davis has 18 tackles -- just two fewer than Anderson, who has played more snaps.
--C Justin Hartwig returned to practice on Thursday and coach John Fox said he didn't have trouble snapping the football with his broken right thumb. Still, look for rookie Ryan Kalil to start this week.
--WR Keary Colbert was back at practice after sitting out a day with a foot injury.
--QB Vinny Testaverde looks like Carolina's starter on Sunday.
--QB David Carr was held out of practice Thursday while recovering from a concussion.
--RB DeShaun Foster is averaging more than 114 rushing yards per game in his last five meetings with the Falcons. Foster has surpassed 100 yards in four of the last five games against the Falcons.
--DE Otis Grigsby (thigh) was back on the field Thursday.
--OT Jordan Gross (ankle) returned to practice Thursday after taking a day off.
--WR Steve Smith talked briefly about Falcons cornerback DeAngelo Hall on Thursday. When asked if it's difficult to separate playing the game from his emotions when it comes to facing Hall, Smith said, "No not really because each and every week you have to be able to separate that. You have to. If you don't then you are really not affected. Each and every week somebody loses a technical standpoint and people get so personal they forget their technique whether it be in the heat of the moment ... and get so jacked up they lose focus on the next play. Stuff like that. Every week is a challenge to keep the personal highs and lows of the game aside and deal with each play and technically keep going at and being accurate and precise running routes."
INSIDE THE CAMPS:
A couple players that are approaching free agency said this week that there has been no contact from the Falcons about entering into extension talks.
The most surprising non-development has come with outside linebacker Michael Boley, a third-year player who leads the team with 90 tackles and is emerging as a major talent. Boley's agent, Zeke Sandhu, said the Falcons have not approached him about extending Boley's deal, which expires after the season.
Free safety Chris Crocker said there have been no talks between the team and his agent either, giving him the indication that he'll be allowed to become an unrestricted free agent. Crocker said he would like to stay in Atlanta, where he's started at free safety the past two seasons.
Starting weak-side linebacker Demorrio Williams is playing on a one-year, $1.3 million deal signed last offseason when he was a restricted free agent. He becomes an unrestricted free after the season and could be let go.
The coaching staff likes rookie Stephen Nicholas, who was alternating with Williams before suffering a sprained ankle. There is the possibility that MLB Keith Brooking could also be moved back to his natural weak side spot next seasons.
As for Boley, the inaction -- at this point -- could stem from him being a restricted free agent should he not come to terms on an extension in the next few months. The team could place a tender on him that would require any suitors to provide the Falcons with draft picks if they sign him to an offer sheet.
It is unlikely, if the tender his high enough, that a team would give up a high draft pick for Boley. However, Boley is an ascending talent who is among the NFL's tackling leaders. Boley also is strong in pass coverage and is a good pass rusher.
With him being a high character player who has remained relatively injury free, the Falcons could enter into extension talks before the end of season.
With David Carr sitting out his second straight practice while recovering from a concussion, it's almost a certainty that Vinny Testaverde will get the start on Sunday against Atlanta -- providing his Achilles tendon holds up.
"(Testaverde) got through practice today and Matt Moore is coming along fine too," coach John Fox said.
Moore, a rookie, is available if Testaverde is unable to go, and the team could sign Drew Olson from the practice squad if needed.
Carr said if he feels like multiple concussions threaten his quality of life after football, he won't hesitate to give up the game.
"Health is first and family is first. Football is fun. But that's not something you mess around with," said Carr, who suffered his second career concussion this past Sunday against Tennessee.
"I have three boys at home and a family and after all this is done that is where I'm going to be spending my time. I don't want to have to have the same intellectual level as my 7-year-old son right now."
Carr said he's in any danger right now.
In fact, he's spent the last 48 hours trying to convince the Panthers' medical staff and coaches that he's fine to resume practice.
However, the Panthers have held Carr out of action this week pending the results of some baseline tests that were moved back to Thursday night.
"It's serious stuff," Carr said. "My wife, she watches it pretty close and she will be the first to tell me if I'm not ready."
The difficult part about dealing with concussions, Carr said, is that often you feel physically fine but that doctors are telling you something else.
"I spent most of the day trying to convince people that I'm fine," Carr said. "But that's not it. Even though you feel great there are still things healing up in there. It's just a different deal."
Said coach John Fox of Carr: "They will keep evaluating David as they move forward. It's precautionary. Physically he might feel fine, but playing NFL football is a little bit different as far as potential problems with blows to the head. That's a medical decision and something I'm totally supportive of."