Surprising Falcons take step up in class

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. --- 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 consecutive 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 to try to knock 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. "Being a division game, it's very important to both sides."

But with little expected of the Falcons coming into the season, the pressure falls squarely on Carolina, which fell to the Vikings 20-10 last week thanks to a sea of errors that included 12 penalties.

Panther quarterback Jake 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.

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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