RB Jonathan Stewart (Otto Greule Jr./Getty)
With their sole victory coming against the struggling San Francisco 49ers, the Carolina Panthers are still seeking a signature win to put a silver-lining around the grey cloud that has been the 2010 season. They will get their shot Sunday as they host the NFC-best Atlanta Falcons.
KICKOFF: Sunday, 1:00 p.m. ET
SURFACE: Natural grass
TV: FOX, Ron Pitts, John Lynch
PREDICTION: Falcons 37-13
KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Matt Ryan looks unflappable, and he has a passer rating of at least 91.1 in every quarter. He won't fear the Panthers' minimal pass rush and should be able to work most of the field given RB Michael Turner has three consecutive 100-yard rushing games in the series.
The Panthers have hit 20 points in just two of 12 games; the Falcons average 25.3. RB Jonathan Stewart has regained the starting job and QB Jimmy Clausen has shown the ability to make NFL-caliber passes. But he lacks consistency and a deep receiving corps, so the Panthers simply can't afford to fall behind.
FAST FACTS: Clausen has been sacked 15 times in his past five games. ... Turner is second in the NFL with 35 rushing touchdowns since 2008.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
The Falcons expect the Panthers to rely on their running game in order to help out rookie quarterback Jimmy Clausen, who's 0-6 as a starter.
The Falcons' run defense had been playing well until letting Tampa Bay's LeGarrette Blount rush for more than 100 yards last week. They had gone nine games without allowing a 100-yard rusher.
"We won't make any excuses," said linebacker Curtis Lofton, who leads the team with 114 tackles. "It's just overall attitude and missed tackles. We can't have the missed tackles. I have to come out and have a better game."
Carolina will feature running backs Jonathan Stewart and Michael Goodson, who average 3.9 and 4.1 yards per carry, respectively.
"He's really good," Lofton said of Goodson. "I played against him in college a couple of times. He's just really grown as a pro. He's very fast and agile. It's going to take a good effort to bring him down."
While the Falcons must tighten up the front of their defense against the run, the back of the defense is tightening up against the pass.
Left cornerback Brent Grimes' talent and perseverance shows up in that he's lasted through three head coaches. If he continues to play like he did last week against Tampa Bay, it appears that his career is about to take traction.
He had two spectacular plays on passes. One was overturned by review and the other interception, which sealed the 28-24 victory, was upheld.
"That guy is playing amazing football right now," wide receiver Roddy White said.
Grimes also finished with six passes defensed against Tampa Bay.
"That's kind of unheard of," White said. "That's blanketing people out there. He's growing every week. He's getting better. The more football he plays, the better he's getting."
Grimes led the Falcons in interceptions with six last season. He's tied for the team lead with four this season.
He attributes his steady improvement to learning how to study film under assistant coaches Emmitt Thomas, Alvin Reynolds and new secondary coach Tim Lewis.
"I'm happy, but I'm still trying to get better," Grimes said. "I'm trying to improve every day and every practice. You just have to keep working. It's a steady grind."
Weak-side linebacker Jason Williams, claimed off waivers on Nov. 3 from the Dallas Cowboys, has made an impact in his two starts for the Panthers with a hand in 15 tackles as well as three turnovers.
Two weeks ago against Cleveland, Williams ripped the ball out of tight end Evan Moore's hands at the goal line and then recovered the fumble, not only saving a touchdown but giving the offense some breathing room by returning it to the 10-yard line.
This past week Williams pressured Seattle quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, hitting him just as he released the ball resulting in an easy interception for safety Charles Godfrey.
A little later in the game Williams got his hands on a Hasselbeck pass, and while he probably should have caught it, his teammate Captain Munnerlyn did come up with the interception after it deflected off Williams' hands.
"It's been a very productive two weeks for me, but at the same time I'm still learning the system and getting acclimated to everything," Williams said. "I'm trying to take everything in stride and get better every week. I can't rest on the fact that I had two good weeks. You are only as good as your last play."
That's the type of productivity the Panthers want from their WILL linebacker, a position that has seen nearly as much turnover as quarterback.
Thomas Davis was slated to start the season there but re-tore his ACL back in June. The Panthers moved Jon Beason to that slot for half of the season but were forced to move him back inside following an injury to middle linebacker Dan Connor. That's when the Panthers claimed Williams off waivers.
Nic Harris initially took the spot, but the Panthers turned to Williams two weeks ago and he's produced.
Coach John Fox said he's been impressed with Williams so far.
"I don't think he's a well-oiled machine at this point but he's worked hard at it, made some plays," Fox said. "He's got some skills. Now it's just knowing our defense."
--RB Jason Snelling, who missed last week's game with a hamstring injury, did not practice on Thursday. But he worked out very hard on the side with the training staff.
--TE Tony Gonzalez, who rolled his right ankle in the fourth quarter against Tampa Bay, returned to practice. With 86 career touchdowns, Gonzalez sits one TD catch shy of tying Andre Reed (87) for 11th in league history.
--DE Jamaal Anderson was splitting time at tackle and defensive end. Lately, he's been moved back exclusively to defensive end
--P Michael Koenen is tied for sixth in the league with 16 touchbacks on 65 kickoffs.
--DE John Abraham has already surpassed the number of sacks he posted during the 2009 season. In Week 11, Abraham collared one sack for a loss of three yards bringing his total to nine and forced one fumble. Abraham now has 98.5 career sacks.
--RB Michael Turner has rushed for 1,062 yards on 247 carries with eight touchdowns. His best performance of the season came in a Week 5 victory over the Cleveland Browns as Turner racked up a 140 yards. Turner has recorded six 100-yard rushing games in 2010, including four of his last six games.
--MLB Curtis Lofton has recorded a team- high 114 total tackles (84 solo). He also has two sacks for a total loss of 16 yards, and three forced fumbles.
--LB Jon Beason (knee) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday and his status for Sunday's game against Atlanta remains uncertain.
--LB Nic Harris (head) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday and his status for Sunday's game against Atlanta remains uncertain.
--CB Chris Gamble (hamstring) missed his second straight day of practice Thursday and his status for Sunday's game against Atlanta remains uncertain.
--CB Captain Munnerlyn (shoulder), was given a day off to rest on Thursday but should be ready Sunday.
--CB Robert McClain will be the nickel back if Chris Gamble can't play this week.
--LG Travelle Wharton (toe) missed his second straight day of practice on Thursday and may not play this week.
--QB Brian St. Pierre said he was able to do some throwing, but he's not quite back to 100 percent.
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