- The Washington Times - Sunday, October 3, 2004

First-year coach Jim Mora hasn’t wasted any time in reviving the Falcons. Atlanta, 5-11 last year, is 3-0 going into today’s visit to defending NFC champion Carolina. Of course, Mora has been fortunate that quarterback Michael Vick has been healthy.

The Falcons are 15-8-1 with Vick in the lineup the last three seasons, 3-10 when he’s hurt.

Vick has been especially dangerous against the Panthers’ fierce defense, running 25 times for 252 yards and passing for 621 yards, but he is still adapting to the West Coast offense. A week after compiling a 120.3 passer rating and running for more than 100 yards in an upset of NFC West champion St. Louis, he was sacked five times last week and didn’t produce a touchdown in a 6-3 escape against lowly Arizona. But Mora has retooled a defense that was 29th against the run in 2003 and now ranks second, with an NFL-best 14 sacks.

The Panthers (1-1), who followed their opening loss to Green Bay by surprising Kansas City behind 174 yards from DeShaun Foster, the replacement for injured running back Stephen Davis, have had a bye week to prepare to beat Vick for the first time in four tries.

Having rookie quarterback Rod Rutherford, an excellent runner and left-handed passer like the Atlanta star, simulate Vick in practice has made that preparation easier. So did Falcons safety Cory Hall boasting, “Who’s going to beat us?”

Responded Panthers Pro Bowl defensive tackle Kris Jenkins: “Everybody can run their mouths. The last time I checked, we had quite a few people go to the Pro Bowl last year.”

Colts-Jaguars — There’s no bigger clash of styles than this AFC South showdown. The 2-1 Colts have the No.1 offense. The surprising 3-0 Jaguars have the stingiest defense.

Led by young tackles Marcus Stroud and John Henderson, Jacksonville allowed just 28 points in beating Buffalo, Denver and Tennessee. Indianapolis scored 35 in the first half alone against Green Bay. Quarterback Peyton Manning (nine touchdowns, 119.9 rating) has been phenomenal, and second and third receivers Reggie Wayne and Brandon Stokely (33 catches, 559 yards, five touchdowns) have combined to outshine All-Pro Marvin Harrison (22, 207, two). Halfback Edgerrin James is averaging 109 rushing yards a game despite a tender hamstring.

“Peyton is playing lights out, and he’s got a host of talent [around him],” said Jaguars coach Jack Del Rio, whose team has won each week by three or fewer points. “For us, everything revolves around the two big men up front.”

Patriots-Bills — Each team has had a week off, but the rest probably won’t help the winless Bills who have lost five of six meetings with the unbeaten Patriots by an average of 17 points since New England became a championship caliber team in 2001. Buffalo quarterback Drew Bledsoe has plenty of respect for his former team’s defense after being intercepted seven times (with just four touchdowns) and being sacked 11 times in four starts against the Patriots.

“It starts with their linebackers, who are all very experienced and very smart,” Bledsoe said. “They can do some things against you that other teams can’t because they have enough players that truly understand their scheme. On top of that, they play very physical. People make yards against them. They bend, but they never give up the big play.”

The Bills (0-2) didn’t make many big plays in losing a pair of 13-10 games to Jacksonville and Oakland. The defending champion Patriots (2-0) edged the Colts before beating Arizona to extend their winning streak to 17, one shy of the record (including playoffs). New England has led 11 of those 17 games by fewer than six points in the fourth quarter.

After facing the potent offenses of New England, Tennessee and Green Bay, the Colts’ last-ranked defense should get a breather against the Jaguars’ similarly rated offense. Second-year quarterback Byron Leftwich has led a pair of come-from-behind drives in the final minutes, but Brett Favre, Steve McNair and Tom Brady — all Super Bowl passers — combined for an awful 49.9 rating in the fourth quarters against the Colts.

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