KEYS TO THE GAME: QB Cam Newton was forced to throw under duress in what was a tight game in Atlanta on Oct. 16. Newton has shown improvement -- especially decision-making from the pocket -- in the five games since that 31-17 loss. A major boost from the running game, which features three players with 100 or more carries and a cumulative average of 5.0 yards per rush, gives Newton shelter and opens lanes downfield for WR Steve Smith (17.9 yards per catch). The Falcons have to figure out third down and red zone problems to put the Panthers away. With RB Michael Turner averaging 3.2 yards per carry the past two games while battling a sore groin, QB Matt Ryan's inconsistency as a deep passer has been exposed.
FAST FACTS: Turner has five 100-yard games in the last six meetings. ... Carolina has 14 players on injured reserve, including eight starters.
INSIDE THE CAMPS
In his second season in the NFL, Sean Weatherspoon is having a strong campaign.
After going through an injury-marred rookie season, Weatherspoon is fulfilling the promise that led to the Falcons selecting him with the 19th pick of the 2010 draft. He's second on the team with 109 tackles and passes defensed with seven. He also has three sacks.
His numbers indicate that he's playing the run, rushing the passer and playing well in pass coverage.
"Sean Weatherspoon, the young guy out of Missouri, is a dynamic guy," Carolina coach Ron Rivera said. "He's a playmaker. He's a physical guy that plays downhill. He plays good with his hands. He's got enough athletic ability to make plays for them."
Last season, Weatherspoon landed the starting strong-side linebacker spot, but suffered an ankle injury against New Orleans in the third game. He came back two games later against Cleveland and took a helmet shot to his knee that knocked him out of the next four games.
When he returned, his mobility was limited, but he completed the season. He finished with 52 tackles, a sack and knocked down one pass.
After the lockout, Weatherspoon was moved to weak-side linebacker in order to take better advantage of his speed and ability to play in space.
"It's just starting to come together," Weatherspoon said.
Weatherspoon is a part of a defense that is giving up 90 yards rushing per game, which ranks third in the league.
"It's pretty much a pride thing," Weatherspoon said. "In our defense, when they do have a good run against us, it's pretty evident that we understand what happened and who's supposed to be in that gap. That's about being accountable. You definitely want to always be accountable to your teammates, so you have to play with a chip on your shoulder.
"You definitely don't want anybody to run the ball on you. As a linebacker, that's what you're taught first. Get down hill and hit something. That's pretty natural there."
The Panthers aren't sure if they will have Pro Bowl left tackle for Sunday's game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Gross has missed the last two days of practice with an ankle injury.
If Gross can't play, the Panthers have two options -- starting rookie tackle Lee Ziemba or moving Travelle Wharton out to tackle and sliding in Mackenzy Bernadeau at left guard. Ziemba, a seventh-round pick from Auburn, has never started a game.
The obvious hope is that Gross will recover enough to play, but that will be determined on Friday.
Facing John Abraham is a tough task for Gross let alone an undrafted rookie.
"I'm ready if they need me," Ziemba said. "I've been working hard and studying their defense."
--WR Kerry Meier will appeal the $20,000 fine from the NFL for his hit on Vikings long snapper Cullen Loeffler. The hearing will be held Tuesday. Meier was fined for an illegal blind-side block to the head area in the game Nov. 27 during a Falcons punt return. Loeffler broke a bone in his lower back on the hit in the second quarter and was placed on injured reserve.
--LB Mike Peterson is set to make his second start of the season.
--MLB Curtis Lofton leads the team in tackles with 111. Last week, the Falcons allowed a 100-yard rusher for the first time in 15 games and Lofton is not happy about that.
--RB Michael Turner needs eight yards to reach 1,000 for the third time in four seasons with the Falcons. He has rushed for 707 yards and 11 touchdowns in seven games against the Panthers.
--LT Jordan Gross did not practice for a second straight day because of an ankle injury.
--TE Greg Olsen returned to practice full on Thursday and should play this week.
--WR Steve Smith returned to action Thursday after getting a day of rest on Wednesday.
--TE Jeremy Shockey returned to action Thursday after getting a day of rest on Wednesday.
--LB Jason Phillips (calf) is likely to remain out of action. He hasn't played since the midway point of the season.
--LG Travelle Wharton practiced full after missing part of Sunday's game with a tight back. He should be fine for Sunday.
--SS Charles Godfrey injured his shoulder and is limited for Sunday.