CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP)—The Atlanta Falcons stormed off Carolina’s field, a victory in hand and a message for the rest of the NFL.
“We own the South!” linebacker Keith Brooking shouted.
After a 27-10 victory over the defending NFC champion Panthers on Sunday, the Falcons at least have a firm grip on their division.
The Panthers found a way to slow down Michael Vick—their No. 1 nemesis— but failed to shut down any other parts of Atlanta’s game. The result was an easy win that moved the Falcons to 4-0, matching the best start in franchise history in 1986.
While the players celebrated their 11th win in 13 tries against Carolina, Falcons management took a far more cautious approach.
“It is extremely early,” said Atlanta general manager Rich McKay. “The thing I like is how hard we are playing. But there is a long way to go and Carolina certainly won’t go down without a fight.”
All the fight belonged to Atlanta in this one.
They won without the typical one-man show Vick usually puts on against the Panthers (1-2).
Normally unable to stop Vick from racking up astronomical numbers, the Panthers held him to 148 yards passing and 35 yards rushing in this meeting. With all the focus on keeping Vick in check, Carolina was a mess in other areas.
“We get sidetracked as a team, as a defensive unit, in thinking we’ve got to stop one person,” said defensive end Julius Peppers. “There’s 10 other people out there … if you focus on just one, someone else will kill you.”
But the Panthers mainly hurt themselves.
Carolina twice turned over the ball to end almost certain scoring drives. Muhsin Muhammad fumbled on the opening drive at the Atlanta 21, and the Falcons converted it into Dunn’s touchdown run. Then Jake Delhomme was intercepted at the Falcons 3 to end another Carolina opportunity on the Panthers’ first possession of the second half.
But the most costly error came with 12 minutes left in the game and Atlanta clinging to a 13-10 lead. Delhomme threw into heavy coverage and Mathis grabbed the ball and marched untouched into the end zone.
It was reminiscent of last December, when Mathis intercepted Delhomme on the first play of overtime and returned it 32 yards for a 20-14 Atlanta victory.
“It feels so good to be where we are right now,” Mathis said. “We are playing as a team, we are confident—but not overconfident—and we’re really rolling right now.”
T.J. Duckett added a 4-yard touchdown run with 4:13 to play to make the win a blowout.
This meeting was fairly nasty, with 21 total penalties, six personal fouls called and one near brawl.
Carolina linebacker Brandon Short was called for unnecessary roughness against Vick, and the two exchanged head-butts afterward. It led to pushing and shoving between nearly every player on the field before the officials took control.
Vick completed his first seven passes. Things weren’t so easy from there, and he went just 3-of-11, leaving him 10-of-18 for the game.
Atlanta’s defense, the NFL’s worst last season, put together its fourth consecutive impressive outing.
The Falcons held Carolina to 360 yards total offense, forced three turnovers, harassed Delhomme the entire day and hardly gave DeShaun Foster room to run.
“We’re a complete 360 degree turn from last year,” Vick said. “This is a great defense and they are only going to get better. I’m very excited about the future of this team.”
Atlanta’s most impressive defensive stand came in the waning minutes, when the Panthers moved into scoring range, but fell short on four consecutive shots at the end zone. Muhammad dropped a touchdown catch, and the Falcons broke up the next three passes.
But the Panthers refused to credit Atlanta’s defense, instead blaming themselves for the loss.
“They say in this league that games are lost more often than won,” Muhammad said. “I think this one was more of us making mistakes that gave them the win.”
Notes: Carolina RB Rod Smart left with a sprained knee and linebacker Mark Fields had lower back spasms. … Atlanta’s Dunn left with a hamstring strain. … Falcons receiver Peerless Price had two catches and two personal fouls. …. Muhammad led all receivers with 114 yards on seven catches. … The Panthers failed to sack Vick. … Atlanta’s Patrick Kerney had two sacks on Delhomme and has seven this season.