Carolina Panthers

Panthers' defense unsure about Vick-less Falcons

CHARLOTTE -- For the past six years, Atlanta Falcons football was Michael Vick.

That's why no one's quite sure what to expect when the Falcons play their first regular-season game without him in the Georgia Dome.

"We'll find out I guess," coach Bobby Petrino said. He said he was pleased with the way the city seemed to embrace them during the preseason, but their 0-2 start makes this an unknown commodity.

"We played a Monday night game against Cincinnati (in August) and had a great crowd and it seemed real good," the rookie NFL coach said. "But just like anything else, you have to keep winning."

The team has been under the microscope for months because of the federal dogfighting conspiracy investigation -- which led to Vick's guilty plea and suspension -- but new quarterback Joey Harrington said the team's tried to be as upfront as possible with the persistent questions.

"It's been that way for a while," Harrington said. "It's been that way because the organization did such a good job dealing with it from the start. From day one they were open and said 'Ask us any question you would like.' We will answer any questions you have.

"After this point we are going to move on because we have a responsibility to this team to get ready. By being open and being honest it eliminated the big elephant in the room. It eliminated the hesitation about the situation and we were able to move on and play football."

Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis, a Georgia native, said he's not sure what the crowd will be like long-term, but expects a strong show of support for the opener.

"That's tough. In Georgia, they like a team that wins," Davis said. "And when you're not winning, the crowd has a tendency to get down on you. They've got some pretty good supporters, they'll be there for the first game to try to help them out in any way. We know it's going to be loud, we just can't let it get to us."

Of course, the local fans have also come to expect wins over the Panthers there. Though Carolina has won the last two meetings in the Georgia Dome, they lost seven straight before that, and are 3-9 all-time there.

"The Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers, regardless if we're playing in California or Charlotte or Atlanta, it's going to be barn burner," defensive end Mike Rucker said. "They've been through a lot the last few months, and their fans are going to come out and support them and throw up some good numbers.

"We've got to be focused on going on the road, hostile environment. We've got to expect the worst, and if you get something different from that, well, you've already prepared for the worst, and that's the approach I'm taking."