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Surprising Falcons to be tested against Carolina
Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson (27) is hauled down by Atlanta Falcons defender Lawyer Milloy (36) last Sunday during the first quarter in Atlanta. - photo by John Bazemore | The Associated Press


— Mike Smith wanted to know all the ugly details when he took over as Atlanta Falcons coach.

Smith quizzed team personnel on Michael Vick’s dogfighting conviction, Bobby Petrino’s abrupt in-season resignation and the impact of three straight non-playoff seasons, including last season’s disastrous 4-12 campaign.

Smith just didn’t ask his players about it.

"I wanted to know, but at no time did I ever talk to our football team about 2007, 2006 and 2005," Smith said. "It was something that I felt that the guys knew and lived it. I wanted to be aware of it. We stated that we are starting with a clean slate in 2008."

So far, so much better than most could have hoped.

The Falcons have at least proved they’re better than the dregs of the NFL after home wins over bottom-feeders Detroit and Kansas City.

Today, Atlanta (2-1) brings the NFL’s top rusher and sacks leader to Carolina in hopes of knocking off the Panthers (2-1) and securing at least a share of the NFC South lead.

"I think it’s confirmation that we are doing some things good," said Smith, in his first NFL head coaching job. "Our players are getting confirmation that the way we’re doing business gives us an opportunity to be successful."

Today’s game will give the Falcons a better gauge of just how far they’ve come. While Michael Turner has rolled up a league-best 336 yards rushing, John Abraham has an NFL-high six sacks and rookie quarterback Matt Ryan has avoided major mistakes, Atlanta’s wins have come against two winless teams.

The Falcons are on the road for the first time since struggling to move the ball in a 24-9 loss at Tampa Bay in Week 2. The Panthers won at San Diego and beat Chicago before stumbling last week at Minnesota.

"We’re just trying to win football games," said Turner, who has five touchdowns, but was held to 42 yards rushing in Atlanta’s loss to the Buccaneers. "Being a division game, it’s very important to both sides."

But with little expected of the Falcons coming into the season, the pressure today falls squarely on Carolina, which fell to the Vikings 20-10 last week thanks to a sea of errors that included 12 penalties and Jake Delhomme’s fumble that was returned for a touchdown.

"You come back and watch the film and take your medicine and move on," Delhomme said. "I have said it after the first two wins, you are two weeks away from the penthouse to the outhouse and you have to come ready to play."

Delhomme will face the Falcons for the first time since his throwing elbow disintegrated in Week 3 last season.

In three games since undergoing ligament-replacement surgery, Delhomme has just one touchdown pass, a 14-yarder to Dante Rosario as time expired to beat San Diego in the opener.

Last week, despite the return of top receiver Steve Smith from his two-game suspension for punching cornerback Ken Lucas, the Panthers had only 73 yards of offense in the second half.

While Travelle Wharton (knee) is expected back at left guard after a two-game absence, rookie right tackle Jeff Otah will get a steady diet of Abraham, who has five sacks in six games against Carolina.

"He’s extremely powerful, and he’s quick," said Delhomme, who was sacked five times last week. "He’s a heck of a football player."

The leadership of Abraham and safety Lawyer Milloy has helped mask the Falcons’ inexperience on defense, especially in the secondary. Turner’s monstrous start has been a big help for Ryan, the first-round pick who has two touchdown passes and two interceptions, and a higher passer rating (77.0) than Delhomme (74.7).

"I really think he doesn’t look like a rookie QB to me. He looks very well," Lucas said. "They put him in a great position to make plays and we’ve just got to treat him like we’re playing a Brett Favre, Tom Brady, anybody else, because the players and the teams you take lightly are the ones that embarrass you."

The Panthers have had plenty of embarrassments at home in the past two years, including last year’s 20-13 home defeat to an awful Atlanta squad.

The road team has won the past five meetings, and continuing that streak would give the Falcons more hope that the nightmares of last season are behind them.

"I think if you want to change the culture, you have to first change people’s behavior," Smith said.

"And when you change their behaviors, then you change their habits. All human beings are creatures of habit, and we’re trying to create and instill what we call winning habits here in our locker room and here in the building."

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