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Falcons looking to make early statement in NFC South

The Atlanta Falcons are feeling pretty good about the start to their season, but defensive shortcomings are a concern.

That could be just the tonic for a strangely sluggish offense for the Carolina Panthers.

The teams meet Sunday afternoon at the Georgia Dome, with the Falcons anticipating an agitated opponent.

"Plenty of us to shine a light on to improve on," Falcons coach Dan Quinn said despite back-to-back victories. "We're building toward that. We have a lot of work to do."

The Falcons rank first in the NFL in offense by scoring 34.7 points and gaining 448 yards per game. It has been a good blend of rushing and passing, with quarterback Matt Ryan completing more than 70 percent of his passes to go along with seven touchdowns with only one interception.

"Every time we go against them, they're physical," Ryan said of the matchup with the Panthers. "We're going to have to play our best football."

Carolina is coming off a 22-10 home loss to the Minnesota Vikings. They enter the game in Atlanta having not scored for more than 50 minutes.

"It just can't happen," Panthers coach Ron Rivera said of the inconsistencies. "We have to hone in and be more thorough."

Carolina receiver Kelvin Benjamin went without a reception and had only one ball throw his way against the Vikings after a two-touchdown outing the previous game, and quarterback Cam Newton vowed to have Benjamin more involved.

"There's one thing I've learned, if Cam says he's going to do something he's sure going to try to do it," Rivera said after learning of his quarterback's midweek comments.

Games in his hometown of Atlanta naturally take on more significance to him, Newton said, and his team's early struggles are bringing on added frustration.

"They don't care about Carolina," he said of the Falcons. "We're 1-2. We just can't get into the rhythm of winning. It is frustrating. ... We have to take that personal challenge that we have to be better."

The Panthers were so out of sync on the offensive line that Newton was sacked eight times by the Vikings.

"It's tough seeing him go down anytime," Panthers offensive guard Trai Turner said. "You never want to see your quarterback go down."

Newton wasn't going to blame his offensive line and brushed off the problem while turning the focus ahead.

"Just pressure recognition and get the ball out of my hand," Newton said. "Ready to take on the challenge from Atlanta."

But if the Falcons have shown shortcomings the past couple of weeks it has come in their pass defense. Plus, Atlanta's defense has notched only three sacks all season and that might account for why the Falcons have given up a fair share of big plays through the air.

"The explosive passes, that has to come down," Quinn said. "A couple of cases they were mental (mistakes)."

The Panthers, though, have various ways to move the ball on the ground and that's why they rank third in the NFL with an average of 146 rushing yards.

"This is a tough outfit," Quinn said of the Panthers. "It really (starts) off their run game. They have a number of packages they feature, and their quarterback is involved."

The Falcons had so many contributors in defeating New Orleans 45-32 on Monday night that Quinn is calling for a carryover of that type of team work.

"As a coach, that's what pumps you up," Quinn said. "You play as a whole group, a whole unit. You're pulling for one another. When you play team ball like that, that's what fires me up."

Adding to the efficiency, Atlanta wasn't called for an offensive penalty.

The Panthers brought back defensive tackle Kyle Love, who had started two games last year, this week to add to the interior pressure. While that gives Carolina another pass rusher, it's also something for the Falcons to consider.

"They're a very aggressive front, so every chance we get we're going to have to attack," Quinn said.

It will be the third matchup against a NFC South foe this season for the Falcons, who lost their only previous home game to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Quinn said the early schedule of divisional opponents heightened the importance of these games.

"Another chance for us (now) at home with our crowd here," he said.

It suddenly looks like a crucial game for the Panthers, who've lost three of their last five regular-season games dating to last season. Carolina had its perfect season halted last December in Atlanta after winning its first 14 games on the way to winning the NFC championship.

"I'm trying to get to 2-2," Newton said. "Last year is over with."

The Falcons also aren't putting much emphasis on what happened almost nine months ago.

"Each week and each season to me is new," Quinn said. "The important part of us is that we recognize this as a division game."

For Carolina, the Falcons are its most-played opponent, with Atlanta leading the series 25-17. This season's rematch won't come until Christmas Eve.

Updated September 28, 2016

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