Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers looked as good as ever Sunday to Detroit Lions quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
After Peppers sacked him twice, including one that forced a fumble, Culpepper raved about Peppers' performance.
“When we do our game plans on Wednesday, he's the guy who has ‘red alert' on him,” said Culpepper, who previously faced Peppers while playing for Minnesota. “We always have to know where he is.
“He's a game-changer. He's an absolute beast out there. I love competing against him because he's one of the best.”
After struggling through a 2 1/2-sack season last year, Peppers has doubled that total in the past two games and has nine sacks for the season. That ranks third in the NFC and sixth in the league.
The only defensive end with more sacks than Peppers is Atlanta's John Abraham, who faces the Panthers on Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
Culpepper was playing in only his second game after coming out of retirement two weeks ago.
He said the interception he threw to Panthers safety Charles Godfrey with less than five minutes remaining was a result of the brief time he's had to get acclimated to the Lions' system.
Detroit trailed 24-22 before the interception, which Godfrey returned to the Lions' 4 to set up DeAngelo Williams' game-clinching touchdown.
“It was miscommunication,” said Culpepper. “That comes with time. I was thinking (wide receiver Calvin Johnson) was going out, and he cut back in.”
“A sack there would have been better than turning it over. I can't have it back now. I'm just going to have to learn from it. If I get put in that situation again, I'll do something different with it.”
The Panthers have achieved their highest ranking of the season in rushing offense after setting a franchise single-game record with 264 yards rushing against Detroit.
The Panthers improved to No. 6 in the NFL in that category, continuing their steady climb up the rankings after being as low as 19th earlier in the year.
Carolina's running game was expected to thrive the past two weeks against Oakland and Detroit, who now rank 30th and 32nd (last), respectively, in run defense. Earlier this season, the Panthers had a big rushing day against the No. 31 team, Kansas City.
There could be more big rushing days ahead. Though the Panthers play only teams with .500 records or better in their final six games, only one upcoming opponent ranks in the top 10 in the league against the run, and three are in the bottom 11.
Here's how those six teams stand in the NFL run defense rankings: Atlanta 22nd, Green Bay 28th, Tampa Bay 12th, Denver 26th, the Giants 8th and New Orleans 19th.
Coach John Fox said during his weekly news conference that the Panthers didn't go into their past two games against the Raiders (2-8) and Lions (0-10) expecting “a walk in the park.”
Though Carolina beat both teams, the games were closer than expected.
“I keep saying that's how you guys look at it,” Fox told reporters. “You don't play the game. (Players) have to play the game, so all (games are) hard.”
Fox said reserve offensive lineman Jeremy Bridges is progressing well after being held out Sunday because of an irregular heartbeat.
Fox said doctors wanted to deactivate Bridges for precautionary reasons and that Bridges' availability to play against the Falcons won't be known until later in the week.
Fox said Bridges hasn't had the condition before and that its similar to the diagnosis given a few years ago to former defensive end Mike Rucker.
Fox also declined to speculate whether Ryan Kalil, out four of the past five games with an ankle sprain, would be able to play against the Falcons. Kalil didn't practice last week after trying to play the previous week at Oakland. He left the Raiders game before the end of the first period because he was having trouble pushing off on his blocks.