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What to watch: Panthers at Falcons


The Carolina Panthers are pleased with their progress so far, yet they're far from pleased.

"Everyone is saying it's a work in progress, but we can't really say that anymore," said left tackle Jordan Gross, whose Panthers will carry a 1-4 record into Sunday's game at the Atlanta Falcons. "It's too late into the season, and we've got to make some moves to get back into the swing of things. We've just got to find ways to win."

The Falcons (2-3) will enter the NFC South matchup with a similar mindset. Both teams are looking up at both New Orleans (4-1) and Tampa Bay (3-2) in the division standings.

The Panthers actually have a better point differential than either the Falcons or the Buccaneers but have little of true substance to show for it with four losses by a total of 22 points.

"I like our team," Gross said. "We're way better than I even thought we would be, and spirits are still good in here. We're all hopeful."

If the reasons for optimism are to translate to a victory Sunday, here are some keys.

ROAD KILL: The Georgia Dome has been peachy for the Falcons, the pits for (most) visitors.

The Green Bay Packers are the only visiting team to beat Atlanta over its last dozen home games – in last year's playoffs and last Sunday.

"Atlanta is a hostile place, that's for sure," Gross said. "The crowd noise is tough there, so poise and communication is going to be a challenge."

The Panthers have lost their last three games at the Georgia Dome, by an average of 15.3 points, and overall they've lost 10 consecutive regular season road games.

Carolina, however, has been right there at the end in its first two road trips of 2011.

"We've responded very well to playing on the road," head coach Ron Rivera said. "The thing we have done early on is that we seem to feel things out. We need to get off to a fast start, really hunker in. We could really help ourselves by doing that."

TURNER IN OVERDRIVE: The Falcons' passing game gets a good amount of attention, but the Panthers plan to pay special attention to running back Michael Turner.

!Turner has totaled more rushing yards in Atlanta's two victories than he has in the Falcons' three losses.

"Atlanta is big on running the ball first, so we've got to control the run game and try to control Turner because he's a great back," Panthers linebacker James Anderson said. "That's how they set up everything, so if we can control that, we have a chance."

When the Falcons swept Carolina last season, Turner scored more points (24) over the two meetings than the Panthers (20).

TIGHT END TROUBLE: New Orleans tight end Jimmy Graham torched the Panthers for 129 receiving yards last Sunday. Green Bay tight end Jermichael Finley paced the Packers in receiving yards against the Panthers. Arizona tight ends Todd Heap and Jeff King combined for more than 100 receiving yards against the Panthers.

Next up is Tony Gonzalez, the most prolific pass-catching tight end in NFL history.

"He's great at using his body, and he's great at finding the pockets and getting open," Anderson said. "He understands what you're trying to do as a defender to him, and he learns how to defeat that."

Gonzalez, even in his 15th, can't be completely stopped but most be contained. The Panthers must limit his space in the red zone and on third downs.

SPEAKING OF THIRD DOWNS: The Saints offense is the best in the NFL at converting third downs, a percentage it padded by succeeding on 12 of 17 against the Panthers last week.

The Falcons aren't far behind, ranking seventh in conversion rate. The Panthers defense, on the other hand, ranks 22nd in stopping third downs.

Carolina needs to slow that trend Sunday, though the good news is that Atlanta likely won't have an easy time stopping the Panthers on third down.

The Panthers offense is in the middle of the pack when it comes to converting third downs (14th, at 37.5 percent), but the Falcons are a dismal 30th in stopping third downs, allowing successful conversions 46.3 percent of the time.

SOMETHING SPECIAL: Eric Weems returned a punt for a touchdown against the Panthers last season on his way to a Pro Bowl appearance.

Weems has been average in the early going this season, and the Panthers must keep it that way.

Special teams have hurt Carolina on several occasions this season; now is the time for the units to help the cause. Tackling Weems is a start, but the Panthers certainly could use a big return themselves.

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