Atlanta Falcons defender Lawyer Milloy (36) celebrates his interception with teammate Michael Boley (59) against the San Francisco 49ers last Sunday at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta.CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Mike Rucker's alarm will go off at 7 a.m. today. An hour later, the Carolina Panthers' defensive end will eat some spaghetti with chicken. He'll then drive to the stadium and arrive exactly three hours before kickoff.
Convinced that consistency is important, Rucker's gameday schedule hasn't changed for years. Everything is timed to the minute, from when he puts on his pads to his pregame workout.
Only when the Panthers (4-4) face the Atlanta Falcons (2-6) today, Rucker would like to stop what's become a stinging part of the routine: ending his day talking about another Panthers' home loss.
Carolina hasn't won a game at Bank of America Stadium in 51 weeks and 357 days. Five quarterbacks have played for Carolina in the stretch of five losses by an average score of 30-10.
'It's not like anything is different. It's not that you're not wanting to win, that you're not trying,' Rucker said. 'It's just tough to answer why we haven't been stronger at home.'
With scores of 37-3, 20-7 and 31-7 during the streak, the Panthers have been booed by their home fans and played in the fourth quarter in front of thousands of empty seats.
'If I were a fan, I'd be frustrated also,' Panthers safety Chris Harris said.
What makes it puzzling is the Panthers have been able to win on the road. Last week's loss to Tennessee ended a six-game road winning streak dating to last season. Coach John Fox has a better road record (25-19) than home mark (22-21) with Carolina.
Fox is convinced it's because of the teams they've played at home. But that theory will be tested against the Falcons - even with the Panthers facing more uncertainty at quarterback.
Atlanta did end a three-game losing streak with a 20-16 win over San Francisco last week, but remains one of the league's worst teams and ranks 27th in total offense.
The Panthers won the first meeting, 27-20 in September, in no small part due to DeAngelo Hall's meltdown.
The Falcons cornerback was called for 67 yards worth of penalties on one drive - including two personal fouls - as he couldn't stop jawing with receiver Steve Smith. The Panthers scored the tying touchdown on the drive and took control from there.
'We have talked, there is no doubt about that,' Falcons coach Bobby Petrino said. 'He has done a nice job and is working at it. He's been playing well and I know he's looking forward to the game.'
Hall hasn't talked to the media of late, and Smith brushed off talk of the rematch.
'It's just another day at the job site,' Smith said.
Smith has been frustrated at not getting the ball in Carolina's constantly changing quarterback situation, and the Panthers have managed just 14 points in the past two games.
Jake Delhomme's last game came against the Falcons in Week 3, when he suffered a season-ending elbow injury. David Carr then suffered a back injury and a concussion. Vinny Testaverde is trying to come back from a right Achilles' tendon injury. Undrafted rookie Matt Moore has played in three games.
'It makes it a little harder to prepare when you have to study all three of them closely,' Petrino said.
Petrino finally had some reason to smile last Sunday in a nightmare season that started with Michael Vick's suspension and has included Hall's transgressions and injuries to Byron Leftwich and Alge Crumpler.
Warrick Dunn had his first 100-yard rushing game of the season, defensive end John Abraham picked up his sixth sack and the Falcons forced four second-half turnovers against the 49ers.
'Being 1-6 at that time, it was definitely something that we needed for momentum building,' Abraham said.
Carolina's defense has also improved of late. Leading tackler, rookie Jon Beason, has taken control at middle linebacker and will stay there after Dan Morgan was placed on injured reserve. The secondary has five interceptions in the past four games.
But the defensive line remains a puzzle. Julius Peppers has more personal foul penalties (two) than sacks (1 1/2). The Panthers' seven sacks in eight games is the same number they had in their last home win.
It was on Nov. 19, when they made life miserable for Marc Bulger in a 15-0 win over St. Louis. Rucker, held without a sack this season, sacked Bulger twice. The Panthers rushed for 244 yards and improved to 6-4.
They would lose their next four games to fall out of playoff contention. Nearly a year later, the Panthers hope to move back into a tie atop the NFC South by solving their home-field riddle.
'When you don't win any at home like we haven't, you start looking at everything. Is this right? Are we doing this right?' Rucker said. 'It's going to come down to each guy saying, 'Hey, this is another opportunity to win and we've got to seize that.'
SideBar: Falcons at Panthers
When: Today, 1 p.m.
Where: Charlotte, N.C.