Charles Johnson plans to play

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Carolina Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson is more than optimistic his groin injury won't keep him from starting Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons.

"I feel like 100 percent I'll be on the field,'' Johnson said Monday as the Panthers (4-3) began preparing for their NFC South rival. "I feel good. I'll play on Sunday.''

Johnson, who has led Carolina in sacks the past three seasons, is again the Panthers' sack leader this season with six. He strained his groin in the final minutes of Thursday night's 31-13 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

At the time, Johnson wasn't aware how serious it was. He canceled plans to travel during the rare off Sunday to return to Bank of America Stadium for treatment so he would be ready for Atlanta (2-5).

Johnson has been an integral part of a Carolina defense ranked third in the NFL.

"I'm looking forward to playing Atlanta,'' said Johnson, a native of Hawkinsville, Ga., and a former University of Georgia standout. "I can have plenty of weeks off in the offseason.''

Johnson said it's doubtful he'll practice Wednesday, not wanting to risk aggravating the injury that he called a mild strain. But it's not doubtful he'll be ready for an Atlanta team that he had a single-game-best 3½ sacks against last season at the Georgia Dome.

"I love playing Atlanta,'' Johnson said. "It's a division game, a big game. You always get up for anybody, but Atlanta, it's just a little extra sauce on it.''

Meanwhile, the Panthers continue to evaluate running back Jonathan Stewart, who missed the first seven games rehabbing his right ankle after undergoing offseason surgery.

Coach Ron Rivera remains hopeful the team's second all-time leading rusher will be ready to come off the physically unable to perform list to face the Falcons.