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Falcons expect energized Panthers on Sunday


only team to win a division road game -- a two-point victory at New Orleans in Week 17.

It hasn't gone the same way in 2009

and Smith is hoping to keeping bucking the '08 trend when his Falcons visit Bank of America Stadium on Sunday to take on the Panthers at

1 p.m.

But at the same time, the Panthers (3-5 ,1-2) are improving, winning three of their last five games. The Falcons (5-3,

1-1) have not exactly been stellar on the road, going 1-3 this season.

The great irony is that Smith said the

Falcons most complete game came as a visitor at San Francisco. To play consistently for four quarters, he said, is something the team

continues to fix.

The Falcons yielded 440 yards to Carolina in Week

2's 28-20 victory at the Georgia Dome and needed a last-minute interception from cornerback Chris Houston to preserve the win. Smith was asked if he thinks his defense can

improve upon that showing.

"We're more experienced," he said. "I think we've improved in some areas. The thing we've got to

continue to improve on is sustaining our level of play for four quarters. We've done some really good things in spurts, but we have not

been able to sustain it for four quarters.

"The one time was San Francisco. I know we're more experienced and the guys are

feeling comfortable with each other."

It's a theme Smith has harped on all week. He said on Monday he thought the team showed

On Thursday, Williams' participation was limited while Stewart was back to full participation.


pointed out that the Panthers' offensive line is "big and strong and those two backs are very, very powerful backs with great speed."

Teams that can run have given the Falcons particular trouble, as two of their losses have come to teams that rank in the NFL's top eight

in rushing yards per game.

All of them have come against teams that rank in the top half.

Falcons linebacker Mike Peterson said that what makes Carolina's running attack so successful is their

commitment to it. While some teams will pass on third-and-5, the Panthers often run.

"As a linebacker, you get up for games

like this," Peterson said. "The first time we played them, I hadn't played them before. Everyone was talking about the run game. I'm

pumped up."

One positive sign in that regard for the Falcons is that run-stopping defensive tackle Thomas Johnson, a starter since Peria Jerry was lost for the season but who has missed the last two games

with a calf injury, practiced on Wednesday and Thursday.

In addition, 6-foot-2, 307-pound rookie Vance Walker, making his NFL debut two weeks ago, has played well with three solo

tackles against New Orleans and five against Washington.

"The last two games he's had a chance to play, he's played well,"

Smith said of Walker. "We think he'll continue to advance. It's nice to see a young guy step into a role so quickly."


there is reason for the Panthers' resurgence, head coach John Fox said, it's that they have limited turnovers. Through their first three

games -- all losses -- the Panthers had eight interceptions and four fumbles lost.

In the last five games, they have the same

number of turnovers (12) -- six interceptions and six fumbles lost. Since they fixed their turnover problem, the Panthers' time of

possession has been 31:17 or more in each of those last five games.

"We've cleaned that up in the last couple of weeks to…

give us a chance," Fox said of the turnovers.

For their part, the Falcons have fixed one of their own weaknesses in the last

two weeks, that being their running game. Michael Turner has rushed for 317 yards on 38 carries in the last two weeks, averaging 8.3

yards per carry.

The Panthers will have to deal with Turner minus the services of linebacker Thomas Davis (a former Georgia

Bulldog), who was lost for the season with a torn ACL on Sunday. Panthers linebacker Jon Beason said Davis was having a "Pro-Bowl"-type


"Any time you lose a guy like Thomas, it's always tough," Beason said. "… In my eyes, he was having the best season of

any [weak side] linebacker in the league."

Said Falcons quarterback Matt

Ryan: Davis "is a big part of what they do. Obviously, having played against him a couple of times, we know what he can do. That

hurts, but that's the NFL… Regardless of who's in there, I think John Fox does a great job of imploring that throughout his entire team,

being physical and staying disciplined."

Ryan said he thinks the Panthers' defense has played with confidence during their

improved stretch of play.

They are doing it with a new mix of personnel.

Fox pointed out that both starting defensive tackles, Damione Lewis and 14-year veteran Hollis Thomas, did not go

through training camp. The Falcons did not see Thomas, signed on Oct. 1, in their previous meeting. The Panthers also traded for Tank

Tyler, Thomas' backup, in late October.

"They've solidified their defensive tackle situation a little bit," the Falcons coach


In the defensive backfield, Carolina also has been banged up. Rookie Sherrod Martin started the last two games at free

safety in place of starter Charles Godfrey. Another rookie, former South Carolina standout Captain Munnerlyn, started last week at


"Sherrod played lights out against Arizona and he played well against the Saints, too -- a play here or there,"

Beason said. "But rookies are going to make those mistakes… Those guys are growing up overnight."

The Panthers also have been

getting after the quarterback during the last five games. They have 14 of their 18 sacks in that span. Their ends lead the charge, with

the ever-dangerous Julius Peppers totaling seven sacks, Charles Johnson with three and 2.5 for Tyler Brayton.

Each of the

last two days, Falcons' starting offensive tackle Sam Baker (ankle), who most likely

would line up opposite of Peppers, has not practiced. That could leave Will Svitek

as Baker's replacement if Baker is inactive.

The Falcons allowed three sacks last week against a strong pass-rushing

Redskins' defense. Significantly, however, Ryan had his first game without multiple interceptions for the first time in four weeks.

"We still have a lot of improving to do, myself included," Ryan said. "This is the time we want to start peaking, in November

and December."



An overview of Sunday's game from John Manasso


J. Mike and

Matt preview Sunday's game against the Panthers



interviews and more concerning the Falcons, Panthers


managing editor


Updates on Falcons, Panthers injury news


Some key stats

and info that could come into play


Bits of info and "by the numbers' for the game


A beat

writer's thoughts on the Falcons running game

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