ATLANTA -- The Atlanta Falcons' only shutout in the past nine years came a month ago against Carolina, a 30-0 drubbing that left the Panthers with only one healthy quarterback.
The teams meet again Sunday, and the Falcons, the hottest team in the league, can't afford to look past this game.
"That's the toughest thing in professional football, to beat a team you're supposed to beat," Atlanta coach Dan Reeves said Wednesday. "We've had some success. Now do we handle success well?"
The Panthers have lost seven straight, including four losses by three points or less. The only game they were totally out of was against the Falcons, when Michael Vick totaled 297 yards running and throwing.
He gained 92 yards more than Carolina all by himself, getting Atlanta started on its current six-game unbeaten streak. At 6-3-1, the Falcons are a half game in front of the New York Giants for the final NFC playoff spot.
"It's a great situation we're in right now," Vick said. "It just goes to show that we believe in ourselves and what we've got going on here."
In the earlier meeting, the Panthers were missing several starters, including quarterback Rodney Peete. Without him, an offense led by backups Chris Weinke and rookie Randy Fasani didn't cross midfield until late in the third quarter and didn't come close to scoring until the final minute.
Weinke left in the first half with a possible concussion, leaving Fasani to weather the storm in his NFL debut.
Peete will return Sunday, along with linebackers Dan Morgan and Mark Fields, who also missed the earlier game.
"The one thing we're not going to do is try to say it's Rodney Peete, and he makes their offense go," Atlanta cornerback Ray Buchanan said. "We look at our defense, and if we can get in anybody's face, they're going to have problems, like the last time we played them."
The Falcons should be favored in five of their last six games, including road trips to Minnesota and Cleveland. It's a heady time for a franchise that had grown accustomed to losing in its 36-year existence.
"It's great," Vick said. "We have some games in front of us that we should win, but nothing is guaranteed in this league, as we all know."
For motivation, they need to look no further than last Sunday, when Green Bay lost a chance to clinch a playoff berth at struggling Minnesota. The Vikings won 31-21. Reeves and several players mentioned that game while discussing the Panthers.
Reeves even declared Carolina was better than Minnesota, since they beat the Vikings earlier this season.
Atlanta linebacker Keith Brooking has another worry - the Falcons' porous defense on the road. They have given up 29 points a game in four away games, and just 12 points at the Georgia Dome.
"When we go on the road, for some reason, we don't play as well," Brooking said. "That's the challenge for us. No matter what your opponent's record is, it's a challenge. They're in this league for a reason, and those guys can play."
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