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What to watch: Panthers at Falcons


Veteran members of the Panthers all too often have experienced what it's like when the Georgia Dome is rocking.

Sunday, they want to rock the boat.

"When you play a team that's used to being in a dome, there's an advantage," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "The sounds reverberate off the walls. The only way you can really shut it out is to shut them out. We've got to play well."

The Panthers have dropped four consecutive games at the Atlanta Falcons, and the franchise is just 4-13 there all-time. Since Carolina last won at the Georgia Dome in 2007, the Falcons are 30-10 at home.

If the Panthers (1-2) can buck those trends Sunday, they'll get right back in the NFC South race. If not, Atlanta (3-0) will add to its cushion.

Tight end Greg Olsen knows it's not an easy place to win, but he also knows the Panthers are capable of making some noise of their own.

"The crowd noise really gets captured in there, and the crowd embraces that," Olsen said. "But we have some things to deal with it, and if we do a good job, it shouldn't have a big impact in how well we play."

Beyond the noise, here are some areas that should speak volumes about Sunday's eventual outcome.

"FAST" START: While the Falcons have found the end zone on their opening drive in every game so far, the Panthers' defense has allowed a touchdown on its opponents' opening drive every game.

"We've got to come out with a better intensity," Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis said. "We've got to understand the situation and go out and set the tone early instead of waiting till the second series. We've got to jump on these guys while also not trying to do too much."

Beyond the obvious goal of keeping the Falcons out of the end zone early, a "fast start" also could take a slower form. The Panthers offense is yet to produce points on its opening drive, but scoring early – or at least piecing together a couple of good drives – could slow the Falcons.

"The more you keep the ball, the less they're on the field, obviously," Rivera said. "That's something you want to try to accomplish."

PLAYING KEEPAWAY: One of the keys to keeping drives alive is not turning the ball over. That may be obvious, but Atlanta's opponents have struggled just the same.

The Falcons have a remarkable plus-10 turnover ratio through three weeks, far and away the best in the league. They lead the NFL with 11 takeaways and are one of just two teams (along with the New England Patriots) to turn the ball over just once.

The Panthers are tied for 30th out of 32 teams with a minus-6 ratio. Just two teams have more than their eight turnovers.

Last year in Atlanta, the Panthers hung close but fell short due in part to three Cam Newton interceptions. The Panthers are 0-12 when Newton turns the ball over.

"Interceptions really shattered what we had going," Newton said, "but I feel like the game plan was in place for us to win."

TAKING IT TO THE MATT: With a big turnover margin and dynamic weapons up and down the offense, the Falcons rank second in the NFL at 31.3 points per game.

"Matt Ryan is playing extremely well," Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson said. "He's making good decisions and not turning the ball over at all. We're going to have to put a lot of pressure on him."

Johnson is still seeking his first sack. The Panthers have just five as a team, while Atlanta has allowed just four.

"We'll gladly accept the challenge. We want it on our backs," Johnson said. "We should get pressure to help out our back seven."


DON'T GET BURNED: With Ryan targeting the likes of wide receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White as well as tight end Tony Gonzalez, opponents can sometimes forget about running back Michael Turner.

The Panthers cannot.

Turner is averaging more than 100 rushing yards over his last seven games against the Panthers, with 11 touchdowns.

"Turner is a big back who can hit the hole real hard, and he has good vision," Johnson said. "If you don't wrap him up, he's going to make you pay."

Consistent tackling has been a problem for the Panthers of late. They can't let Turner get away, or the game could.

SPECIAL ASSISTANCE: Rookie returner Joe Adams turned the ball over twice in the Panthers' last game.

Carolina needs just the opposite from Adams or someone else.

A positive play of note on special teams often turns the tide. Adams clearly is capable, as is Kealoha Pilares.

In the kicking game, Justin Medlock has been effective on kickoffs so far. He's made his only field goal attempt but would love more opportunities, perhaps even one with the game on the line.

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