FLOWERY BRANCH, Ga. - Coach Jim Mora never knew how much he would appreciate the Atlanta Falcons' Week 3 victory at Buffalo.
An eight-point win over the Bills stopped a five-game losing streak on the road for his team, but the game has given Mora another reference point.
"The only game that we won when we didn't score first is Buffalo," Mora said this week. "That has been something that has been significant this year."
In their second season under Mora, the Falcons have developed a winning habit if they score first. They are 6-0 this year, 16-4 overall since owner Arthur Blank hired Mora to replace Dan Reeves.
When the opponent scores first, Atlanta is 3-6 under Mora, including 1-4 this season. That lone 2005 victory came at Buffalo.
Defensive end Patrick Kerney, who has played his entire seven-year career with the Falcons, believes his team still lacks maturity at times. That would make sense, given that the defense will have eight regular contributors who are either in their first or second full seasons when Atlanta (7-4) visits Carolina (8-3) this weekend.
"Starting fast is important to our team being successful and helping us weather other teams' storms," Kerney said. "When the other team has come out and given us their best shot, that's when we've been struggling, so being up in their stadium, we've got to go through our methodical way of doing things and we ought to be OK for the rest of the game."
Strongside linebacker Michael Boley and right-side defensive end Jonathan Babineaux are rookies. Injuries to established veterans Ed Hartwell and Brady Smith forced them into the lineup.
Nose tackles Chad Lavalais and Antwan Lake are both in their second full season. Weakside linebacker Demorrio Williams is in his first full year as a starter. Two reserves, defensive end Chauncey Davis and tackle Darrell Shropshire, are rookies.
And cornerback DeAngelo Hall, drafted No. 8 overall in 2004, is Atlanta's youngest player. Though he has started 22 straight games, Hall missed the first six weeks of his rookie season with a small hip fracture.
The Falcons rank 16th in total defense, 15th against the pass, 17th against the run, but they are second in third-down efficiency, eighth in sacks, 13th in scoring and tied for 11th in takeaways.
For Mora, the long-term benefits should provide a foundation of talented players over the next three to five years. In the short term, however, experienced quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Brett Favre), running backs (Shaun Alexander) and defensive stars (Simeon Rice and Derrick Brooks) have exposed the tendency of some young players to lose focus.
Seattle, New England, Green Bay and Tampa Bay combined to take a 62-0 lead in Atlanta's four losses.
"We're playing a little shorthanded now, but it's not an excuse," Mora said after the Buccaneers scored 10 points in the final 1:55 of a 30-27 loss two weeks ago at the Georgia Dome. "We've got some significant injuries and we have to find a way to overcome them. We're playing with a lot of young guys on defense. I looked out there and we had four rookies up the middle, but there are a lot of teams that have that. You have got to find a way to fight through it."
After the Falcons ended a two-game losing streak last week, Mora was proud that his defense held Detroit until the 9:18 mark of the fourth quarter. Atlanta won 27-7 for a fourth straight road victory.
Mora promises that nobody will worry exceedingly if the Panthers score first on Sunday.
"I think what we need to do is just come out that play football and not panic and stay steady," Mora said. "If that means playing 0-0 for a while, or 3-0, or 0-3 - just manage the game well early. That is what we will do. That is kind of our focus."