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With a home win over the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, the Carolina Panthers can move into a tie for first place in the NFC South -- an amazing feat for a team that could be starting its fourth different quarterback of the season

 

With opening day starter Jake Delhomme already lost for the season after elbow surgery, both David Carr and Vinny Testaverde have struggled to stay healthy for Carolina (4-4).

Carr suffered a concussion last week after getting sacked seven times in Carolina's 20-7 defeat at Tennessee, and Testaverde has not played since aggravating a right Achilles' tendon injury during a 31-7 home loss to Indianapolis on Oct. 28.

Testaverde returned to practice on Wednesday, but coach John Fox didn't name him the starter for Sunday, meaning it's possible undrafted rookie Matt Moore could get his first career start.

"I thought both he and Matt Moore looked good," Fox said. "It was a good practice. It was well executed."

Moore went 2-for-5 for 36 yards and an interception in relief of Carr last week. He was signed late in the preseason after projected third-stringer Brett Basanez was lost to a season-ending wrist injury.

"He hasn't been here that long," Fox said of Moore. "He's definitely made progress. A lot of this game is mental, and it's just a matter of him getting acclimated to the offense."

The inconsistency at quarterback has plagued the entire offense. Carolina has scored just seven points in each of its last three losses and averages only 17.1 points per game, 25th in the NFL.

Even Pro Bowl wide receiver Steve Smith has been held to fewer than 20 yards in each of the last two games. Smith confronted Carr about his role in both games.

"I think getting the ball to anybody was an issue," Fox said. "I understand and Steve does, too, and our team does, that Steve has obviously proven himself as a top wideout. They were things designed to go to him. Unfortunately, it didn't pan out."

The offensive line was also a culprit last week, as Carr continued his historic pace of getting sacked. It was the seventh time in 81 career games that he had been sacked at least seven times.

"We just had a lot of errors," Fox said. "We had three false start penalties and a couple of other different penalties. They made for unmanageable situations."

Despite all the problems, the Panthers are just a half-game behind idle Tampa Bay in the NFC South. Wins by Carolina, which has lost five in a row at home dating to last season, and New Orleans this week would create a three-way tie atop the division.

Atlanta, meanwhile, is at the bottom of the division. The Falcons (2-6) are in the midst of their worst start since 2003, when they opened 1-7, and are 30th in the NFL in scoring with 14.4 points per game.

Things have gotten so bad in Atlanta that last week's game against San Francisco was blacked out locally as the Falcons failed to sell out the Georgia Dome for the first time since 2001.

But the fans that did show up watched them snap a three-game slide with a 20-16 win over San Francisco, their first victory of the year over an NFC team.

"We needed a win," Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said. "It feels good to work hard and finally see it pay off."

Atlanta's Warrick Dunn rushed for 100 yards and a touchdown on 27 carries, his first 100-yard effort since last October. Dunn may have to carry the load again, as Jerious Norwood's status is uncertain after he injured his right ankle against the 49ers.

Quarterback Joey Harrington is expected to start his second straight game in place of Byron Leftwich (ankle surgery). Harrington threw for 138 yards and an interception against San Francisco.

 

But as it did last week, Atlanta may have to win this game with its defense. Safety Chris Crocker's tackle of San Francisco tight end Vernon Davis at the 1-yard line in the final minute saved the game for the Falcons, and DeAngelo Hall, Lawyer Milloy and Jimmy Williams each had an interception.

"We finally looked like a football team," Hall said. "It's very encouraging. I hope we keep it up down the stretch."

The Panthers have won four of their last five against the Falcons, including a 27-20 victory in Atlanta on Sept. 23.

In that game, DeShaun Foster ran for 122 yards and broke a 17-17 tie with a 10-yard touchdown late in the third quarter, but Carolina lost Delhomme and linebacker Dan Morgan (Achilles') for the season. Morgan was officially placed on injured reserve Tuesday.

Foster's success against Atlanta was nothing new. He's averaging 114.8 yards over his last five games against the Falcons, gaining 100 yards in four of those contests. Foster only has seven 100-yard games in his career.

In a 10-3 win at Atlanta on Christmas Eve, Carolina only attempted 10 passes but ran for 183 yards.

"I think our defense will understand that they want to establish the run," Petrino said.

Associated Press

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