Looks like the Birds are going to catch the Cats in a weird situation.
First, there's the obvious quarterback issues, what with Jake Delhomme imploding how he did on Sunday and A.J. Feeley being signed as the new backup after Josh McCown got hurt. Turmoil at this spot in particular is never welcome.
Next you've got the disappointing play of the offensive line, the unit I would have called the strength of the Panthers' O until they gave up five sacks and let Eagles linebackers run rampant. Even the trenchmen themselves admitted that they let pressure find Delhomme all day.
Then you see the aberration that is their defensive chart from last week, and you've just got to be puzzled how Thomas Davis managed 14 solo tackles while Jon Beason got four and Na'il Diggs just two. Good to see a Dawg break out like that, but where is the balance?
And to wrap it up, you've got little concerns - like the fact that DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart got not only the majority of the carries, but also the majority of the receptions, while Mushin Muhammad had four catches and Steve Smith had only two (?!) - and it begs the question:
Why is Carolina playing like this?
Can't answer that myself, but I will tell you it gives the Falcons an even better chance to pull this victory off in the Dome.
Carolina Rush Offense v. Atlanta Rush Defense
Chances are you've heard, either from me or a reputable source, that the Atlanta line kicked butt last week. They shut up both Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams and certainly were not having any of that Wildcat nonsense.
You've probably also heard that Carolina's fearsome backfield duo had some problems, and though their split was nice and clean, the team must be hoping for more than 72 combined yards from Williams and Stewart. These guys are the most savage pair of tailbacks in the league, after all.
We Dirty Bird fans can only hope for more of the same from both units involved, plus a little more of the magic that Curtis Lofton, Michael Peterson, and Stephen Nicholas worked in the second level. Falcons hitters were like magnets to ballcarriers on Sunday (fast-moving, hard-hitting magnets, that is), and I can see more of that coming, though the two-headed monster will inevitably have a revival.
The question is, to what extent will their revival be? Blocking just straight-up stunk (Tony Fiammetta should be on the field now, not later, if they want to win), and the line obviously needed to shake off some rust. They're good, but DeAngelo and Jonathan can't cause the reversal all by their lonesome.
I see the Panthers allowing not quite as much penetration as the Fins, but still a good amount. Hopefully Peria Jerry is feeling both healthy and encouraged by his key run stop last week, and will be inspired to continue working on his clogging skills. If not, there's always Jonathan Babineaux to go to war (and get nowhere near enough credit), so that takes care of the middle.
And between the three starting 'backers, someone can meet Williams coming on the outside.
This is not a guarantee that we will smother the excellent Panthers' running game, but it is a prediction that Carolina will not rebound entirely and Atlanta will not totally drop off.
Atlanta Rush Offense v. Carolina Rush Defense
Judging solely by the stats, the Falcons' ground game projects to do a job similar to that of this past game, though perhaps with better production from the periphery. Note that the Panthers D gave Philly's Brian Westbrook 64 yards while Miami gave Michael Turner 65, but also that Philly had five different guys gain 11 or more yards at a time. Last week, the Falcons' second-place rusher had two total yards.
Of course, in order to duplicate the success the Eagles had, we're going to have to actually give the ball to Jerious Norwood a few times in running situations; not to say he was bad in a pass-catching role last week, but a more traditional "every-third-carry" approach might work just as well here. And heck, give Ovie Mughelli the ball some more, even if just for the chance of seeing him dance again (awesome!).
The Panthers line left a lot up to the linebackers and secondary last week. Julius Peppers was his normal self, but Damione Lewis and Tyler Brayton looked timid. For that matter, I'm surprised Beason let Davis get so much of the spotlight; he's got to come out hungrier for this contest.
Still, it's awful hard to bring down the Burner once he gets his legs churning (ever heard that before?), and unless Davis has the same sort of explosion he did, finding Norwood on the outside could be a challenge for the increasingly laterally-challenged Diggs. If things are left to safeties Charles Godfrey and Quinton Teal again, we'll have gained too much already.
Carolina Pass Offense v. Atlanta Pass Defense
See how I haven't praised the Falcons' D as a whole yet, but just the line? Yeah, that's because the secondary didn't get a single test last week, and that's causing me to have reservations as we near this divisional matchup.
I've said this one in the past, as well: Our corners have done nothing to impress. We done good getting Brian Williams and immediately inserting him into the starting lineup, but if at any point Smith, Muhammad, or even Dwayne Jarrett faces Brent Grimes or Chris Owens in one-on-one coverage, I'll be cringing.
Earlier I said that Williams and Stewart couldn't possibly produce as poorly in two consecutive contests, and that's even more true of Smith. Unless, I guess, the Panthers pass protection really is that weak and Jake is throwing it for five picks again.
Smith, and for that matter, Muhammad, both have a veteran mindset and a certain will they can impose. Obviously Steve's is more significant, but either has that "knack for making plays that shouldn't happen" simply because they've done it so many times before. Seems to me that even if Feeley comes in by the second, they're both going to put up more yards.
But then, if Feeley replaces Delhomme, we just come back to the question of the line holding against the rush. Kroy Biermann won't have multiple sacks in two straight games, but John Abraham could bring more heat, which might actually be worse.
Atlanta Pass Offense v. Carolina Pass Defense
Assuming the running game is a bit more productive, the Birds won't have to rely on Tony Gonzalez and his miracle hands as much as they did against the Dolphins.
Here's hoping they do anyway, 'cause it's just so satisfying to watch Matt Ryan-to-Gonzo first downs. Teal at least has the height to maybe disrupt one heading for Ton', but otherwise, the Panthers are going to have to devote a lot to controlling him.
Meanwhile, Carolina's going to be dealing with a very different class of receiving corps. No disrespect, but a toddler could tell you the difference between DeSean Jackson and Roddy White or Jason Avant (who?) and Michael Jenkins. There are some good defensive backs that will be thrown at Atlanta receivers - both Chris Gamble and Richard Marshall looked great - but my record's going to skip again as I repeat: Too many threats, too few matchup corners.
Peppers will be something a little new for our O-line, but don't disregard the fact that Matty Ice had enough time for 229 yards last week while facing Jason Taylor and Joey Porter. Not analogous, I know, but give Sam Baker and his beard a nod.
There's just not a good reason to believe that our air attack will be worse than it was last week. I was wary of Jason Allen and Sean Smith, but once we figured out to go to Tony just enough to keep them guessing, the Fins got shredded. Is Carolina's secondary any better?
Prediction: Falcons 27, Panthers 17
Carolina is a good team, and probably should have lost to the Eagles by a score of...I dunno, 35-21.
Last week, they were not that "good team," though, and I can't think of a reason that they'll return to NFC South-winning form completely.
Meanwhile, the Falcons overachieved on defense, but could have done better in terms of gaining yards on the ground. You get a little give-and-take, but we're going to be about the same, if maybe a little more porous.
It goes without saying, but it helps that this is at home and early in the season; if Delhomme's got his head screwed on right by the time we're visiting NC (that'd be Nov. 15), the game will be even closer.