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 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 Carolina.
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.'
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.