NFL Preview - Carolina (0-1) at Atlanta (1-0)
By Scott Garbarini, Associate NFL Editor
(Sports Network) - Just one week into the 2009 NFL season, Jake Delhomme and the Carolina Panthers already find themselves at a crossroads.
After an utterly awful performance by both the embattled quarterback and his team in the season opener, the Panthers head to the Georgia Dome this Sunday to take on the Atlanta Falcons in a clash between the NFC South's top two squads from a year ago.
Carolina hardly resembled the formidable outfit that won 12 regular-season games and edged out the upstart Falcons for the 2008 division crown in last week's home debacle against the Philadelphia Eagles. With Delhomme throwing four interceptions and the Panthers tying a dubious franchise record by committing seven turnovers, the reigning NFC South titlists were handed a humiliating 38-10 loss that may have been even more ugly than the final score indicated.
That wretched performance was more in line with Carolina's showing in last January's NFC Divisional Playoffs, when Delhomme single-handedly accounted for six turnovers (5 interceptions, 1 fumble) in a startling 33-13 setback to the eventual conference champion Arizona Cardinals.
Delhomme will need to re-locate his past form rather quickly, considering a re-tooled Atlanta defense was mighty opportunistic in its Week 1 matchup with Miami. The Falcons produced four takeaways in their 19-7 win over the 2008 postseason participant Dolphins, a very encouraging sign from a group that had trouble forcing turnovers during last year's surprising 11-5 campaign.
Atlanta's offense also presents some potential problems for a Panthers' stop unit that had difficulty containing the run in last Sunday's loss to the Eagles. The Falcons ranked second in the NFL in rushing yards last season, with bruising tailback Michael Turner piling up 1,699 yards and 17 touchdowns in his first foray as a featured ball-carrier.
The Falcons will be seeking their first 2-0 start since 2006 and aim to continue their recent run of success at the Georgia Dome. Atlanta is 8-1 in home games under second-year head coach Mike Smith, with five of those victories coming by double-digit margins.
The Panthers have opened with two straight defeats only once during sideline boss John Fox's seven-year tenure. That was also in 2006, a year in which the team was coming off an NFC South title as well. Carolina wound up with a disappointing 8-8 record and missed out on the playoffs that season.
Atlanta leads the all-time series with Carolina, 17-11, including a conventional home-and-home split last season. The Panthers were 24-9 winners when the teams met in Charlotte in Week 4 of the 2008 campaign, then dropped a 45-28 decision at the Georgia Dome in Week 12. The road team had won five straight games in the series prior to 2008, including Carolina wins in Atlanta in 2005, 2006, and 2007.
Fox enters Sunday's contest with a 6-8 career mark against Atlanta, while Smith is 1-1 against both Fox and Carolina as a head coach.
WHEN THE PANTHERS HAVE THE BALL
With Delhomme struggling and his confidence likely shaken, expect the Panthers to rely heavily on their dynamic running back tandem of DeAngelo Williams (37 rushing yards, 4 receptions last week) and sophomore Jonathan Stewart (35 rushing yards, 2 receptions) on Sunday. The duo combined for over 2,350 yards and a whopping 30 touchdowns for an offense that finished third in the league in rushing (152.3 ypg) a year ago, although both players managed a total of only 72 yards and a meager average of 2.9 yards per carry against the Eagles last week. The passing game was even more of a shambles. Delhomme had nearly as many interceptions (4) as completions (7) and mustered an anemic 73 yards before being mercifully lifted in the third quarter, while an experienced front line that was a real strength last season permitted five sacks. Delhomme has one of the league's great playmakers in shifty wideout Steve Smith, who's had some big days against the Falcons in the past, but the four-time Pro Bowl participant was held to three catches and 21 yards as the focus of Philadelphia's game plan.
After recording a subpar 18 takeaways last season, Atlanta has stressed a more aggressive approach on the defensive side, and that philosophy paid instant dividends in the opener. The Falcons forced three fumbles and an interception of usually-judicious Miami quarterback Chad Pennington, while All-Pro end John Abraham (3 tackles) and situational specialist Kroy Biermann (3 tackles) each delivered two sacks to head up a persistent pass rush. Outside linebacker Mike Peterson, a free-agent pickup from Jacksonville, had a notable impact as well, as the 11th-year pro compiled seven tackles and a forced fumble along with the team's lone pick. Second-year man Curtis Lofton was also productive, finishing with 11 stops (10 solo) and a forced fumble from his middle linebacker spot. The Dolphins registered only 259 total yards and just 163 through the air against the new-look defense, which did an adequate job against Dolphins running backs Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams but figures to face a tougher test on Sunday. The Falcons yielded below-average totals of 127.5 rushing yards per game and nearly five yards per attempt last year.
WHEN THE FALCONS HAVE THE BALL
Atlanta's impressive turnaround last season was often keyed by its ability to steamroll the opposition with its power-based ground attack, but the team showed in the opener that it can still succeed when that aspect isn't firing on all cylinders. With Turner limited to a modest 65 yards on 22 attempts by the Dolphins, young quarterback Matt Ryan stepped up with an efficient and mistake-free day to keep the chains moving. The 2008 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year completed 22-of-34 throws for 229 yards and a pair of scores and zero interceptions, while developing an immediate rapport with new tight end Tony Gonzalez. The former Kansas City standout hauled in five Ryan strikes for 73 yards, including a 20-yard scoring grab in the third quarter. His addition gives the Falcons two premier weapons in the passing game, as speedy wide receiver Roddy White (5 receptions) is fresh off a career-best campaign in which he piled up a club-record 1,382 receiving yards. Turner had a huge day in the Falcons' victory over the Panthers at the Georgia Dome last November, with the Pro Bowl performer collecting 117 yards and four touchdowns on 24 totes.
The Panthers will need to shore up a defense that was gashed for 185 yards on the ground by the normally pass-heavy Eagles in Week 1 in order to come through with a bounce-back win on Sunday. The team was without two of its top stoppers, massive defensive tackle Maake Kemoeatu and hard-hitting strong safety Chris Harris, for the Philadelphia game, while All-Pro middle linebacker Jon Beason (4 tackles, 1 INT) wasn't as effective as usual due to a sprained MCL he suffered in the preseason. Weakside starter Thomas Davis had an active afternoon, however, amassing 16 tackles (14 solo) from his position on Beason's flank. Carolina is hopeful Harris will be able to return from a bone bruise on his knee this week, but Kemoeatu is lost for the year after tearing his Achilles tendon in camp. If the Panthers are able to stop the run, they'll be better able to unleash pass-rushing terror Julius Peppers (5 tackles, 1 sack), a four-time Pro Bowler who's had double-digit sacks in four of the past five years.
With both teams proficient at running the football and questionable in stopping it, Atlanta's Turner and Carolina's DeAngelo Williams appear to have quite favorable matchups and should be started without hesitation. Stewart, often Carolina's preferred choice near the goal line, wouldn't make a bad play as the flex position as well this week. Gonzalez also rates as a must-start here, and the perennial All-Pro's value would be boosted even further if Harris can't play on Sunday. Although neither Steve Smith and White had great season debuts, their track records make both star wideouts excellent options for fantasy lineups. Delhomme can't be used until the gritty quarterback proves he can shake out of his slump, but Ryan almost always performs well at home and would be a solid selection. Considering the Panthers' recent penchant for turnovers, the Atlanta defense could be a useful pickup for this week.
It would be unwise to completely write off the Panthers, who essentially have the nucleus back from a team that won 12 times and nearly captured the NFC's top playoff seed a year ago, especially in a contest they can't afford to lose and fall two games behind one of their chief competitors within the division. However, the Falcons just simply might be the better of these two clubs at the moment. Turner is set up for a banner day against a Carolina defense that was manhandled at the point of attack by a Philadelphia squad that was missing two starting linemen, and the addition of Gonzalez has made Atlanta more difficult to successfully game plan against. The Panthers' talent at the skill positions will present some problems for an Atlanta defense that still has to prove it's as good as it looked last week, but which quarterback is less inclined to make the big mistake that could determine the difference between winning and losing? Right now, it would have to be the fresh-faced youngster on the Falcons' side rather than the seasoned 11-year vet taking snaps for Carolina.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Falcons 31, Panthers 24
09/17 16:24:54 ET