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Falcons back in division race

FLOWERY BRANCH - Through seven games, it appeared the Atlanta Falcons were bound for one of the worst seasons in franchise history, and loud complaints were coming from players and fans.

Suddenly, two wins later, the mood is on the upswing.

A bye week following the 1-6 start must have helped. The Falcons have won two straight games and, because they play in the weak NFC South, they would move only one game out of first place if they beat Tampa Bay at home next Sunday.

Even after Sunday's last-minute 20-13 win at Carolina, the Falcons still are only 3-6, and they're still in last place in their division. But now there's evidence the players are gaining familiarity and confidence in first-year coach Bobby Petrino's system.

'Everything has been new,' Petrino said Monday. 'So hopefully we'll just keep getting better. You need a lot of things to work in order to do that.'

Atlanta's defense did not give up a touchdown against Carolina. The Panthers' only touchdown came on a fumble return by Ken Lucas.

'It's a point now where they all understand the calls,' Petrino said of his defensive players. 'They don't hesitate and wonder about what's going on. Therefore we're playing much faster and at a higher tempo and that gives you more opportunity to make plays.'

On offense, Petrino said 'You have certain things now you really understand.'

The first example cited by the coach: 'Get Roddy the ball.'

Roddy White, enjoying a breakout season, leads the team with 42 catches for 642 yards, including six receptions for 57 yards against the Panthers.

Another obvious key in the two wins has been the resurgence of Warrick Dunn, who ran for 100 yards in a win over San Francisco on Nov. 4. Dunn added 89 yards rushing with a 30-yard touchdown, plus three catches for 51 yards, against the Panthers.

Dunn needs 58 yards rushing against Tampa Bay, his first NFL team, to reach 10,000 for his career.

'We would certainly like to see him get it on Sunday,' Petrino said. 'I think all our coaches have been aware of it. Certainly it's a great thing for Warrick.'

Tight end Alge Crumpler, who early in the season accused Petrino of phasing out veteran players, had the game-winning, 30-yard touchdown catch from Joey Harrington with only 33 seconds left.

'We won the game in the fourth quarter last week against San Francisco, and we found a way this week,' Crumpler said. 'That's huge for us. We haven't won back-to-back games this season. Now we've got to make it three, four and five to continue to build upon what we are doing.'

The big question of the week: Who will start at quarterback against Tampa Bay?

After six games, Petrino benched Harrington to start Byron Leftwich, the former Jacksonville starter. Leftwich, who has a history of problems with both ankles, suffered a high sprain to his right ankle following an injury in his Oct. 21 start against New Orleans.

Leftwich is expected to return to the starting job when healthy, though it's possible Petrino could be hesitant to again bench Harrington after two straight wins.

Petrino wouldn't commit to Leftwich or Harrington on Monday when asked several questions about the quarterbacks.

'There's no reason to say or think anything until you know the health status,' Petrino said of Leftwich.

Leftwich was discouraged when he was sore after throwing one week ago.

'He got a lot of work in late in the week and felt better about it,' Petrino said.

Harrington was 19 of 26 passing for 192 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions against Carolina.

'For us to be sitting at 2-6 and still have the togetherness to go out there and have each other's back says a lot about this team,' Harrington said.

Notes: Todd Weiner, the longtime starter at right tackle, moved to left tackle for the Carolina game. He played right tackle to protect the back of left-handed quarterback Michael Vick, but now the left tackle spot is more important for the team's right-handed quarterbacks. 'We felt that was something we were interested in looking at and something he was really excited about doing,' Petrino said. 'I thought he did a nice job.' ... Petrino was awaiting an update on the status of rookie tight end Martrez Milner, who suffered an apparent high ankle sprain.

SideBar: GWINNETT NFL PLAYERS

Week 10 update on NFL players from Gwinnett County:

Jeff Backus, OT, Lions (Norcross)

Started 104th straight game in 31-21 loss to Cardinals

Jason Elam, PK, Broncos (Brookwood)

Field goals of 44 and 50 yards in 27-11 win over Chiefs

David Greene, QB, Patriots (South Gwinnett)

On New England practice squad

Stephon Heyer, OT, Redskins (Brookwood)

Active but didn't play in 37-29 loss to Eagles

David Irons, CB, Falcons (Dacula)

Two special teams tackles in 20-13 win over Panthers

Jon Stinchcomb, OT, Saints (Parkview)

Started in 37-29 loss at home to Rams

Darius Walker, RB, Texans (Buford)

On Houston practice squad

Mansfield Wrotto, OG, Seahawks (Brookwood)

Seattle played host to 49ers on Monday night