CHARLOTTE, N.C. - The Falcons can say all they want about recovering from a 1-3 start to make the playoffs last year.
Their record is identical in the standings, to be sure, but nothing else is remotely similar to the mark Atlanta had through four games last season.
Losing 23-3 Sunday to a Carolina team they blew out 71-0 in two games in 2002 was bad enough. Watching the Falcons collapse offensively and defensively with quarterback Michael Vick nursing a broken right leg was worse.
Despite spending handsomely in the last year on signing bonuses for Keith Brooking, Patrick Kerney and Peerless Price, Atlanta has fallen into disarray. Even the 100-yard effort of running back T.J. Duckett, surprisingly named the starter for the first time in 15 games, seemed to disappear in a morass of bitterness and confusion hanging over the locker room afterward.
"It's a crucial time, I think, right now for our team _ a time when we need to pull together now more than ever," center Todd McClure said. "I guess it's a time when guys could start questioning what's going on.
"Last year we were in the same situation, and we pulled together. We're going to have to do that again this year."
The job looks enormous at this point. As for explanations, no one in the locker room would say publicly why the offense has scored only two touchdowns in the past 35 possessions and has converted only five of its past 34 third downs. Nobody is willing to question aloud how the defense can surrender an average of 378.3 yards through four games and 87 total points since the season-opening win at Dallas.
"Guys are frustrated, including myself," said Warrick Dunn, whose four rushing attempts were just one more than Woodrow Dantzler, the converted safety Atlanta claimed off waivers four weeks ago. "It's overall team frustration because I think we work hard enough in practice, but it's just not panning out the way we want to."
Brooking spoke for the defense, which allowed a staggering 361 yards against a Panthers offense that averaged only 250 and ranked No. 28 in the NFL.
The two-time Pro Bowl linebacker couldn't believe how he and his teammates missed so many tackles against running back Stephen Davis, who slaughtered them for 153 yards on 21 attempts, and let journeyman quarterback Jake Delhomme complete 16 of his first 21 passes.
"There's no team game, and we are not getting it done," Brooking said. "We've got to figure out how to change that and we've got to do it real quick."
With Minnesota bringing a 4-0 record, a stingy defense and red-hot receiver Randy Moss to the Georgia Dome in seven days, time is precious.
Carolina led 7-0 when it prepared to punt from the Atlanta 40 midway through the second quarter, but cornerback Tyrone Williams kept the Panthers' drive alive with a 5-yard delay-of-game penalty. Facing a Carolina gunner near the right sideline, Williams nudged his foot forward to draw his opponent offside before an official awkwardly ruled that the move "was uncommon to football."
Williams' explanation was equally bizarre.
"That dude moved, man," he said. "That dude moved. I moved with him. I don't care about no rules. This game was a (darned) blowout. We've got to stop the run, man. That's where it's at."
After Delhomme converted a third down on a 9-yard pass to Davis, Falcons strong safety Cory Hall forced a fumble from Muhsin Muhammad at the 2, but the receiver recovered the loose ball at the 5. Delhomme then connected with Ricky Proehl in the back of the end zone on the next play, splitting the Atlanta defense for a touchdown and a 14-0 lead.
Williams' committed an earlier penalty that was just as costly. Eschewing a chance to let Jay Feely try a 50-yard field goal that could've given his team a 3-0 lead midway through the first, head coach Dan Reeves decided the wind was blowing hard enough that Chris Mohr should pin a punt deep in the Panthers' territory.
Mohr did his job, as Carolina took over at the 7, but Davis' third-and-nine run gained 29 yards after Brooking dove and missed the 230-pound running back at midfield. Carolina bit off more big chunks of yardage as Muhammad caught a 16-yard pass and Davis ran for 13.
A pass to Smith covered 12, and Davis ran for the opening 1-yard score, but not before officials penalized Williams for pass interference.
"That's still a good penalty," Williams said. "That's how it goes. He pushed on me. I'm going to push back. Penalties are part of the game."
Of the nine penalties, five were the responsibility of offensive linemen, wiping Doug Johnson's completions to Duckett for 21 yards, Alge Crumpler for five and Peerless Price for nine.
"We had some penalties that really hurt, some more so than others," Reeves said. "We just didn't play very smart and had some penalties that really hurt us."