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Falcons in damage control mode for Monday night

ATLANTA - The Atlanta Falcons have more to worry about than their obvious matchup concerns against the hot New York Giants on Monday night.

Sure, there's good reason for the Falcons to stress about the pass protection two new starting offensive tackles will provide quarterback Joey Harrington.

The Falcons don't need more reminders about the recent success of a Giants pass rush led by ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora. The Giants had 12 sacks in a win over Philadelphia two weeks ago, including a team-record six by Umenyiora.

There's also debate in Atlanta whether Harrington can hold his starting job as backup Byron Leftwich gains familiarity with the offense.

But routine football talk has seldom been the main topic for the Falcons in recent months. For the 2007 Falcons, a quarterback controversy is Michael Vick in federal court, not Harrington vs. Leftwich.

There are concerns the signs of stress are becoming more difficult to hide, especially when viewed Monday night by a national TV audience.

As a result, team leader Keith Brooking has been in damage control mode this week as the linebacker tries to combat the growing image of a team fraying at the seams.

'Trust me, that is not the case,' Brooking said. 'You're obviously talking about what Alge said.'

Alge Crumpler's criticism of coach Bobby Petrino and the direction of the team after last week's loss at Tennessee is only the latest sign of turmoil.

An Atlanta team that already had to endure an offseason of stress caused by Vick's dogfighting scandal has appeared vulnerable to emotional outbursts through its 1-4 start.

A glaring meltdown came when Pro Bowl cornerback DeAngelo Hall drew three penalties for 67 yards on one possession in Carolina's tying drive of its win over Atlanta on Sept. 23. Two of the penalties were personal fouls, and Hall then got into a heated sideline confrontation with Petrino and one of his assistants.

Hall was fined $100,000 by Petrino and benched for the first quarter of the Falcons' win over Houston the following week.

Hall's outburst was one thing. Then came last week's remarks from Crumpler, known for his leadership in his seven NFL seasons. Crumpler said Petrino was favoring young players over veterans.

What's next? Will more meltdowns follow on the Monday night stage?

Brooking insists he's not worried.

'Not at all. People don't realize how we've held it together in this locker room through a tremendous amount of turmoil and adversity,' Brooking said.

'We've fought hard and we've stayed together. People on the outside see us 1-4, and you are what you are, but I feel like we fought our tails off in every game.'

Brooking says the Vick controversy helped bring players closer together.

'The chemistry of this football team, with everything we've faced, we've hung together and we've stayed together throughout the course of this thing,' Brooking said. 'People will see that Monday.'

A contrite Crumpler apologized for his public criticism of Petrino.

'We're on the same page and I think everybody in our organization is on the same page,' Crumpler said. 'We're about winning and finding ways to win.

'I hate that my frustrations got the best of me right after the game, but we cleared the air.'

Petrino said he wished Crumpler had stated his concerns in private, but there would be no punishment. The bigger concern is recovering from last week's 20-13 loss at Tennessee, when the Falcons couldn't take advantage of five turnovers.

'It was a tough loss and there's no question about it,' Petrino said Wednesday.

'Our guys will be back. Everyone was a little down today. ... By Monday they'll be ready to go.'

SideBar: Giants at Falcons

When: Monday, 8:30 p.m.

Where: Georgia Dome

TV/Radio: ESPN/92.9-FM