ATLANTA - Strong starts on offense have helped the Atlanta Falcons remain one of the NFL's three undefeated teams.
Poor starts on defense have left the Carolina Panthers in an early hole in the NFC South.
Each team is placing an emphasis on a successful opening series when the teams meet on Sunday.
Quarterback Matt Ryan's accurate passing is a big reason the Falcons (3-0) are the only NFL team to score touchdowns on opening possessions of the first three games.
The Panthers (1-2) have been equally consistent in their slow starts on defense. Carolina has allowed opposing teams to score on the first possession of all three games.
"We have to come out with better intensity and understand the situation and know that we need to go out and set the tone early and not try to wait until the second series," said Panthers linebacker Thomas Davis. "We have to go out and jump on these guys and not try to do too much."
Fast starts have always been an emphasis for Falcons coach Mike Smith. Atlanta is 37-9 in five seasons under Smith when scoring first.
Ryan was viewed as a rising star in his first four seasons. Now he is being mentioned among the league's top passers as he has flourished in first-year offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter's system.
The Falcons no longer are a run-first team. Ryan has emerged as the NFL leader in passer rating and completion percentage and he's tied with Buffalo's Ryan Fitzpatrick and Pittsburgh's Ben Roethlisberger for the league lead with eight touchdown passes.
Ryan said he's just having fun.
"I think obviously winning is what it's all about, and we've done a good job of that so far," Ryan said. "It's a fun game. It's fun to play. We've got great teammates, we have good camaraderie and it's a fun team to be a part of."
Receiver Roddy White says aggressive play-calling is keeping the Falcons out of third-down situations.
"Dirk always says that if you stay out of third downs, then you don't have to complete them," White said. "Just staying ahead of the chains. I think we're doing a good job of play-calling on first and second down, and Dirk's doing a heck of a job just being aggressive, getting us chunks down the field. I think every time we get chunks down the field and get some explosives on those drives, we're going down and scoring points."
The Panthers can't blame all their troubles on early defensive lapses. Second-year quarterback Cam Newton completed only 16 of 30 passes with three interceptions and no touchdowns in last week's 36-7 home loss to the Giants.
"It's a loss," Newton said this week. "I don't like losing and hopefully we can come back and I can do my part Sunday."
Veteran receiver Steve Smith said he didn't like seeing Newton sulking on the bench at the end of the game. Smith's comments triggered questions during the week about the relationship between the two.
Smith is a five-time Pro Bowl selection who has assumed a big brother role in the development of Newton, who was The Associated Press Offensive Rookie of the Year in 2011.
Newton has five interceptions and two touchdown passes so far, but all the news isn't discouraging. Despite his poor numbers last week, Newton has completed 63.9 percent of his passes and has 81 yards rushing with a team-leading two touchdowns.
The Falcons, who have won their first three games for the first time since 2004, have feasted on the AFC West, beating Kansas City, Denver and San Diego. Atlanta beat the Chargers 27-3 in San Diego last week as Ryan completed 30 of 40 passes for 275 yards with three touchdowns and one interception.
Ryan has only one interception with his eight TD passes.
"Ryan is playing extremely well and making a lot of good decisions," said Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson. "He's not turning the ball over. We have to put a lot of pressure on him because he's just not turning the ball over."
Ryan gives credit to Atlanta's defense for setting up scoring chances.
The Falcons lead the NFL with 11 takeaways and 40 points off turnovers. Safeties Thomas DeCoud and William Moore have combined for five interceptions, three by DeCoud.
"They're playing like ball hawks in the secondary, coming away with a lot of picks and fumbles," Ryan said. "So that's certainly helped us out the first couple of weeks."
All the news hasn't been good for the Falcons, who have had prominent players arrested in each of the last two weeks.
Atlanta police said defensive end John Abraham was "obviously intoxicated" when he was arrested on two misdemeanor obstruction charges Monday night. Atlanta police say Abraham refused repeated requests from firefighters and police to move behind a taped-off area where a woman was threatening to jump out of a hotel window.
Abraham practiced this week.
Abraham's arrest came one week after running back Michael Turner's drunken driving arrest. Turner ran for 80 yards with a touchdown last week against the Chargers.
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